A one-year extension of the current farm bill – once a non-starter among many veteran farm-state lawmakers -- is being considered as a path toward not only passing a new farm bill but ensuring disaster relief reaches drought-struck farms and ranches.

On Friday afternoon, a package including disaster assistance programs and the one-year extension – along with many of the 37 farm bill programs set to expire – was released in anticipation of a House vote as early as August 1. 

The push for the extension follows several weeks of House leadership dithering over allocating floor time for the farm bill passed out of the House Agriculture Committee on July 11 (see here). The full Senate passed its version of the farm bill on June 21 (see here) and it has since been waiting for conference.

The nation’s prolonged, worsening drought, alongside House leadership’s aversion to farm bill debate in an election year, has softened opponents to the idea of an extension. However, Republican leaders’ wishes to avoid a potentially blistering House floor showdown did not solve the additional problem of the party’s farm-state lawmakers returning home on recess to confront unhappy constituents. They hope the move for an extension will tamp down such potential.

For more on the drought and the House farm bill convergence, see here and here.

Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, reportedly began pitching an extension to committee members during a mid-week meeting. He argued that not only would the approach secure disaster funds but would alleviate concerns that it is too late for USDA to implement some of the programs new legislation would require in 2013.

In recent days, fears about the inability of USDA to get up-to-speed quickly on several of the new programs key to the South have been broached by producers and farm group leaders.

The calendar is also working against Lucas, who has repeatedly expressed his preference for passing new legislation over short-term fixes. As of Friday (July 27), four legislative days remain prior to Congress’ August recess. Adding to the time-crunch is the fact that current law expires at the end of September.

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Democrats were once staunchly opposed to the idea of an extension. Before voting to pass the farm bill out of the House Agriculture Committee, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking member, fretted about the tight timeframe for passing a new farm bill.

Alluding to the reluctance of Republican House leadership to schedule floor time for the farm bill, Peterson warned that if they fail “to bring up this farm bill before the (August) recess, they will jeopardize one of the economic bright spots of our nation’s fragile economy.

“Farmers need the certainty of a five year farm bill. We cannot wait for the mess that will occur during the lame duck and get drug into that whole mess. Frankly, I think an extension of current farm policy potentially creates more problems than it solves. I am hopeful the House leadership gets this right and brings the bill to the floor shortly after we move it out of this committee, so we can ultimately finish the bill in September.

“Let’s hope we don’t get drug into this partisanship that pervades the rest of this place.”

However, following Lucas’ entreaties this week, Peterson and Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman, may have been finally swayed to an extension with the promise that it will lead to a farm bill conference before the September end-date.

“If you’re going to provide certainty out in the drought areas, if you’re going to enable an orderly transition from the completion of the regular farm bill, then a one-year [extension] makes sense,” Lucas said on Wednesday, according to a National Journal report.

Cards to play?

It may indeed make sense, but on the way to a new farm bill, veteran southern farm leaders warn that Republican leadership may still play an unexpected card, or two.

“I’m still reluctant to say that an extension is the end game. It’s a chess match right now, an attempt to one-up each other,” says Jeffery Hall, associate director of national affairs for the Arkansas Farm Bureau. “I don’t see (an extension) being good for us. Farmers would lose baseline and take another cut on top. And there’s no guarantee that the (lawmakers) won’t do that.

“It’s dangerous when you consider the ones pushing for no action on the farm bill. When you have (Ohio Rep. John Boehner, House Speaker, and Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, Majority Leader) pushing for an extension, farmers must remember that they’re not the friend of farm programs anyway.”

While it is true that farmers in the South might love to have another year of direct payments there is also no guarantee that a straight extension would carry those payments into 2013.

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they took the direct payment funds and use those to pay for the (drought) disaster,” says Hall.

A kind of pay-go?

“That’s exactly right. The livestock disaster program is not paid for currently. It has expired. So, they could use the $5 billion in direct payments to pay for the livestock disaster. That would leave row crop producers out in the cold.”

Meanwhile, with some two-thirds of the nation in drought, farm groups continue to pressure Congress over a new farm bill. In a Thursday letter to Boehner, National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said, “Further delay of long-term legislation will only present more challenges to passing a bill. Extension of the current legislation is merely a temporary fix, while a five-year farm bill would be a more responsible and viable solution for today and the coming years.

“Standing disaster programs that protect against low yields, price volatility and high input costs are needed so that farmers, especially livestock producers, can withstand these difficult times. These disaster programs need to be included as part of the long-term farm bill. In fact, most of these necessary provisions are already included in the Senate bill and in the House agriculture committee bill.”

Also on Thursday, Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, pointed to a Politico report that “looked back 50 years, longer than I’ve been alive, and found that never before has a farm bill been this close to being passed and then blocked by House leadership.

“This is absolutely unacceptable. Southern Minnesotans can’t afford to deal with the uncertainty that follows out-of-date policy extension that follows lame duck session; lame for sure…

Time is running out, said Walz. “We have 17 days between now and November 6 to work here in Washington. That is so unacceptable, no one will agree to that. Pass the farm bill, pass it now.”

For more farm bill coverage, see here. For drought coverage, see here.