House Setting Into Motion Farm Bill Conference

Naturally, the country has been consumed by the developments (or lack thereof) in the government shutdown and debt ceiling impasse. But there is some movement on another piece of legislation which will need to pass before the end of the year: the farm bill. Last year, the farm bill was set to expire, but the fiscal cliff deal extended it for another year to give time for lawmakers to come to an agreement. If the bill does expire (it technically has but the effects mostly aren't felt until at least January 1), the law would revert back to 1949 law, and among the many consequences, milk prices would skyrocket -- a consequence we dubbed the "farm bill cliff" -- as a result of the price floor set in that law. The actual "expiration" of the farm bill is a number of different dates, but the first significant one for commodities is dairy products on January 1 with other commodities' expiration dates not coming until their first harvest in 2014.

In the last Congress, the Senate passed a farm bill with modest bipartisan support, but the House was unable to agree on one, let alone reconcile a bill with the Senate. This Congress, the Senate has again passed a similar farm bill, and the House's bill was shot down as about one-quarter of Republicans joined all Democrats in voting against it. To make the task of passing a bill easier, House leadership splintered the farm bill, passing just the nutrition portion last month by a narrow 217-210 margin.

Now, the House appears ready to move to a conference with the Senate. The main sticking point will be nutrition programs as the broad outlines of the other parts of the bill are relatively similar. The biggest change in both bills is that they eliminate direct payments to farmers and replace them with a shallow loss program which guarantees a certain level of revenue for farmers.

On nutrition, the Senate bill's main change to the food stamp program is to the standard utility allowance, which provides extra food stamp benefits for recipients who have heating and cooling expenses. However, they are able to qualify for the allowance simply by getting as little as $1 of heating assistance. The Senate bill raises this threshold to $10, while the House bill raises it to $20.

The bigger points of contention, though, are in two other provisions the House bill includes that the Senate bill does not. The first has to do with "categorical eligibility," or the ability of people to receive food stamps by virtue of qualifying for other low-income programs, regardless of whether they meet the food stamp program's means tests. The House bill would restrict categorical eligibility to cash assistance programs only. The second provision, which was not in the full House farm bill that failed to pass, would eliminate the state waiver authority for the three-month time limit for receiving benefits for childless adults. The 1996 welfare reform law included the time limit, which applies to non-disabled adults who do not work 20 hours per week or participate in a job training program. The waiver allows states with high unemployment rates to ignore these requirements.

A conference committee would have a number of issues to settle, but the biggest would clearly be nutrition. The House's full farm bill failed in part because the food stamp cuts were not deep enough for some Republicans. Whether the committee is able to thread the needle on these differences will be a big deal come the end of the year.