Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On the Farm Bill Conference Progress

While the days are limited before the end of 2013, the Farm Bill Conference Committee presses on, working together in a bipartisan fashion to resolve differences and to take the steps necessary to enact a comprehensive and balanced Farm Bill. Under the leadership of Chairwoman Stabenow and Chairman Lucas, it now appears we are on target to complete our work on this bill early in the New Year.

Nonetheless, it has now been more than 440 days since the Farm Bill first expired. Farms are businesses, and farmers in Vermont and across the country are desperate to have a new Farm Bill enacted to give them the much-needed certainty for their planting and other farm decisions. Since the 2008 Farm Bill expired last year, we have seen parts of the country ravaged by blizzards that wiped out cattle herds while commodity prices slump. More than 20 programs, including the Organic Certification Cost Share Program, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Grant Program, livestock disaster, renewable energy programs, and assistance for rural small business owners have been stranded without updated charters, and the USDA has had to press the pause button since these programs are stuck with no authorized funding. Those who participate in these programs are left hanging. That is as unwise as it is unfair.

Last week the House of Representatives quickly took up and passed a short-term extension of the Farm Bill with very little debate and has asked the Senate to do the same. I have heard a lot of concern here in the Senate that this short, one-month extension could allow direct payment subsidies to continue for another full year. We have already agreed on a bipartisan and bicameral basis to get rid of these unnecessary and expensive direct payment subsidies to agribusiness, so we should not fall into this trap of extending them for a full year. That would be unacceptable, and, according to Secretary Vilsack, unnecessary.

Secretary Vilsack has indicated that if Congress completes the Farm Bill in early January, which can be done based on progress we have already made, we will not see the negative effects of the expiration of the dairy title, and implementation of the law should go smoothly. This is a reassuring, positive signal from the Secretary that consumers and our dairy farmers will not see the spikes in the cost of milk that we had all feared last New Year’s Eve.

Of course, if the House of Representatives really wanted to get a Farm Bill done sooner, they would have kept the House in session this week instead of recessing for the year. Instead, they pushed forward a counterproductive short term extension to make it seem that they are doing something for farmers. This comes after the House leadership spent much of the past two years dragging their feet on farm policy and reforms, while the Senate has now passed two overwhelmingly bipartisan and reform-oriented Farm Bills.

While we had first hoped to complete this work in 2012, the Farm Bill was pushed back to 2013, and it will soon become the 2014 Farm Bill. Over the last two years, the need for this comprehensive legislation has only grown. We have all heard stories from our home states about the real impacts caused by the failure of Congress to pass a new Farm Bill and the continued uncertainty for farmers and those who rely on USDA’s nutrition programs. I regret that far too many hungry and food insecure families across America have to wonder whether this most basic assistance will still be in place to offer support in the new year.  I have always been a strong proponent of nutrition assistance programs and the doors they open and will continue to oppose drastic and draconian cuts and damaging changes to these programs.  

I look forward to returning in January and sitting down with the Conference Committee to work through the final details of this bill. We cannot delay any longer, and I am pleased that Chairwoman Stabenow and Chairman Lucas have come together in a bipartisan way to move the Farm Bill forward. As a past chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and a seven-time Farm Bill conferee, I know the challenges they have faced. I look forward to helping with the final steps in conferencing this legislation – a bill that touches every American. Its passage will strengthen the Nation and grow our economy.

The Farm Bill has long stood as a model of bipartisan consensus. I look forward to the Senate and House reaching a final bipartisan agreement that will move the bill forward to the President’s desk.

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