WASHINGTON — Arkansas farmers anxious for Congress to enact a new farm bill will likely have to wait until early next year.
Members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation say negotiators are close to a deal on a bill that would set agriculture and nutrition policies, but they don’t expect the legislation will be ready in time for a vote before the House adjourns for the year Friday.
Without a bill, federal agriculture policy will revert to the original 1949 law on Jan. 1, which U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has warned could cause milk prices to double along with other harmful side effects.
Arkansas lawmakers said Tuesday that they don’t expect those dire predictions will materialize, and are prepared to pass a short-term extension to avoid such pratfalls.
"I think a very short-term extension is doable," said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., a member of the negotiating team that is hashing out differences between farm bills approved earlier this year by the House and Senate.
Boozman said everyone is negotiating in good faith but it takes time to write legislative changes and still more to have them reviewed by non-partisan budget analysts. The work is essentially completed on agriculture policies, he said, but some work remains on nutrition programs.
The House approved a bill that would cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the next decade while the Senate called for $4 billion in cuts.
Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, who is also on the negotiating team, said earlier he expected the final agreement would cut about $10 billion by limiting the ability of states to enroll recipients into the SNAP program — formerly known as food stamps — through other assistance programs.
The farm bill has emerged as a campaign issue in the 2014 Senate race pitting incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle. Pryor’s campaign has hammered Cotton for being the lone Arkansas representative to oppose the farm bill that emerged out of the House Agriculture Committee with bipartisan support.
The House later approved a stand-alone farm bill that did not include the nutrition program. They eventually approved a nutrition bill with deeper cuts to food stamps than the Agriculture Committee had recommended.
Pryor’s campaign Tuesday called on Cotton to demand that the House remain in session until a final farm bill can be approved – rather than wait until January. Arkansas Democrats also complained that Cotton had used taxpayer dollars to send a mailer to his constituents to explain his position on the farm bill.
Cotton said Tuesday that he did not foresee a need for the House to remain in session over the farm bill.
"We’ll wait and see what the conference committee produces, but if they don’t produce something before the House adjourns I understand there is at least the possibility of a very short-term extension," Cotton said.
Cotton said he would want to review the proposal but would be agreeable to an extension lasting anywhere from two weeks to four months so long as it was designed simply to avoid the ill effects of "Washington politicians who can’t get their act together."
Pryor said his discussions with Republicans and Democrats negotiating the farm bill indicate that a deal is close "but not there yet." He appeared hesitant to have Congress approve any extension that would relieve pressure for them to strike a deal.
"I think everybody works better with a deadline," he said.
Pryor said he understands that Vilsack has some discretion in implementing the 1949 law and could likely avoid the so-called milk cliff on Jan. 1 when dairy prices might otherwise double.
"My understanding it that USDA may be able to do some things administratively so that it won’t be necessary for Congress to pass a short-term extension," Pryor said.