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Farm law expires as negotiators remain divided on new bill

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WASHINGTON — The 2014 farm bill expired Sunday, ending dozens of programs and putting others in a holding pattern until four key lawmakers either produce a replacement bill or seek some form of extension of the now defunct law.

The four principal negotiators working on a 2018 farm bill say they hope to resolve differences between House and Senate farm bills and have a conference report ready in October for a vote in the lame-duck session in November or December.

"All of us regret where we are," Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts said after a meeting last week with the top negotiators from the two chambers. "I know farmers and ranchers and growers out there say, 'What on earth are you guys doing?' Well, if you look at what's in the bills you see stark differences of opinion."

While negotiators appear to have closed the gap on two relatively noncontroversial trade and credit titles, they are still far apart in addressing the House bill's proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Those changes include expanded work requirements for a larger pool of adult able-bodied recipients.

Negotiators also differ on Title 1, which sets the terms for farm program subsidies. With the expiration of the 2014 farm bill, major programs such as crop insurance and SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program, will continue because they are either permanently authorized in other laws or funded by appropriators. 

Other programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program, which provides 10- and 15-year contracts to farmers who take environmentally sensitive land out of production, continue to operate but cannot make new agreements or award new grants. The Natural Resources Conservation Service issued guidance on Sept. 21 to state offices that after Sept. 28, they would maintain current agreements but cannot cannot enter into new ones.

Another 39 so-called orphan programs identified by the Congressional Research Service would lose authorization and mandatory funding on Oct. 1. Programs to aid military veteran entering farming, trade promotion and small rural businesses shut down with the farm bill's expiration.

Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., are negotiating with their House counterparts Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and ranking member Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn. The four at least agree that the need for an extension will be more pressing in late December when the dairy program expires, to be followed by the expiration in 2019 of programs covering major crops.

Conaway said expirations and extensions are sometimes part of a farm bill cycle. For example, the 2014 farm bill took 21 months and two Congresses to finish to replace the 2008 farm. Congress then approved a year-long extension Jan. 2, 2013, for the 2008 farm law after it expired Sept. 30, 2012.

"Every time we get to this gamesmanship, whoever is doing the negotiations, it (the farm bill) expires and somehow magically in the next three months it gets done," Conaway said Thursday. "All 12 titles are wide open."

In a House Agriculture Committee video released Friday, Conaway said when people call for a farm bill extension it "means they have given up. I hate giving up. I don't like people who give up." While he said there are legitimate policy differences among the top negotiators, Conaway said the House had a greater sense of urgency in making hard choices than his Senate colleagues.

"There are major sticking points of equal weight in several titles," Conaway said, pointing to SNAP as one such trouble spot.

"We talked about money. We talked about issues," said Peterson after a Sept. 26 meeting that did not break any new ground.

Roberts and Stabenow said the upcoming midterm elections and the possibility of Democrats taking the House or the Senate have not been a factor in farm bill discussions.

Agriculture Committee members of both chambers and both parties generally pride themselves on reaching bipartisan consensus with friction over policies usually falling along regional rather than party lines.

However, Louisiana Republican Ralph Abraham, one of 47 House farm bill conferees, took aim at Stabenow, a Democrat running for re-election in a state that President Donald Trump won in 2016, and Senate Democrats.

"Each time we think we have an agreement, Sen. Stabenow and Senate Democrats move the goal posts, asking for ridiculous things like crop insurance for roof top gardens and other urban farm priorities," Abraham said in a statement on Friday.

Abraham said Democrats "have put at risk vital agriculture programs that rural America depends on all to tow the party line and delay as much legislative business as possible in hopes they'll retake Congress in the midterm elections."

A Stabenow spokeswoman on Sunday blamed House Republicans for the impasse saying "they should put politics aside and focus on working towards a compromise."

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