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Congressional Calendar Hinders Farm Bill

DC Dialogue

Time dwindling for farm bill passage as Congress has full schedule with budget and debt fights and vote on Syria.

Published on: September 6, 2013

Congress returns Sept. 9 after its August recess, but with just nine Congressional working days in September and a new issue – potential military action in Syria – added to the already exhaustive list of things to tackle, it’s unlikely a new, long-term farm bill will be approved any time soon.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has said that the 113th Congress should not be judged by the number of laws it passed, but by the number of laws it repealed. To date, only 31 bills have reached the President's desk this year, and many of those were insignificant regarding the major challenges that face the nation.

The farm bill floundered this summer over political divide in the House. When the House returns Republicans have said the nutrition section of the farm bill will come up early in the time back. Boehner has said he'll name farm bill conferees once that bill is voted on, whether or not it gets an up or down vote. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who has been blamed for tanking the farm bill earlier this summer, retracted some of those promises, calling into question whether he will only allow for a conference even if a nutrition bill fails.

The farm-only farm bill was able to garner the necessary Republican votes, so we'll see if the leadership can again get its caucus in line to do the same with the nutrition bill with $40 billion in 10-year cuts. And if not, will it still allow conference to commence since even Republicans in the Senate know $40 billion in nutrition cuts is nowhere realistic?

Budget

More pressing likely during the nine days the House is in session during the month of September will be the budget situation. The president has not received one of the required 12 appropriations bill before funding stops Sept. 30.

Given the serious differences between the House and Senate on spending levels, there's likely no chance they will pass a real budget before fiscal year 2014 starts. Instead, they'll be forced to pass a continuing resolution (again) and will continue the status quo – likely at post-sequestration levels – instead of more closely examining where funds should best be spent.

The Treasury Department told Congress that the federal government will hit its borrowing limit by mid-October, setting up an ideological and fiscal fight about the debt ceiling during the September work period. The anticipated deadline is earlier than previously estimated, though when the government runs out of money is impossible to predict to the day.

A showdown between the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Democratic Obama Administration would be just one of many in recent years on the issue, which has become one of the most volatile and symbolic fiscal debates in Washington. Republicans typically call for reducing spending as part of any debt ceiling deal, while President Barack Obama has indicated he will no longer be willing to tie the debt issue to any other decision making, including overall spending levels.
And with the debt-ceiling legislation being one of the potentially few left to pass in 2013, some reports point to trying to include a rewrite of the Renewable Fuels Standard there.

Cantor spokeswoman Megan Whittemore was quoted in Oil Price Information Service, "The majority leader listed a number of options to fix [the RFS], and one option was if we came up with a good bipartisan reform agreement out of the Energy and Commerce committee, then maybe we could try attaching it to a must pass bill like the debt ceiling."

Both Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, and the other most powerful ethanol lobbyist Tom Buis, CEO at Growth Energy, both expect efforts to dismantle the RFS this fall, but in the end, will fail.

Buis said the idea is like throwing gasoline on fire, when you include a controversial, yet bipartisan issue into the fiscal debate.