The House last week rejected a five-year farm bill that was widely expected to win approval, renewing doubts about whether Congress can muster the votes to pass major legislation this year, including immigration and budget bills that remain in the works.

Setting aside the debate over who is to blame for the farm-bill failure, we wondered what would happen if lawmakers don’t agree on a replacement measure this session. The Federal Eye asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to answer some of those questions.

First things first, we should provide some background. Vilsack explained that the 2008 farm bill expired last year, but Congress extended most of the provisions for an additional year as part of the fiscal-cliff deal in early January.

(Diego Giudice/Bloomberg) (Diego Giudice/Bloomberg)

Lawmakers essentially have three options now: Enact a new plan, approve another extension of existing policies, or do nothing and let the current extension expire, which would leave the 1949 farm bill to fill the void.

It’s worth noting that the farm bill deals with USDA programs, including farm subsidies and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The legislation does not impact agency operations, so USDA employees will not be affected, regardless of what happens.

Farm subsidies, SNAP and crop insurance posed the greatest barrier to approval with the failed House measure. They also constitute more than 90 percent of farm bill spending.

In terms of farm subsidies, which the government uses to manage crop supplies and support farmers during down years, the program would revert back to the 1949 farm bill if Congress does not approve a new plan. Conditions in the U.S. have changed since the Truman era, so that option would be far from optimal, according to Vilsack.

The guidelines for farm subsidies are flawed and in need of change. As an example, the payments sometimes go to individuals who aren’t farming, as David Fahrenthold reported in a recent article.

Congress will miss an opportunity to improve farm-subsidy guidelines if it doesn’t pass a new farm bill, Vilsack said.

Among the worst impacts under this scenario, Vilsack said milk prices would skyrocket under the 1949 law. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition estimated in a report last year that the cost would double compared to market prices at the time.

SNAP is part of permanent law, so it would stay intact if the farm bill expires, even though it was not part of the 1949 legislation. The food stamp program is flawed too, and Congress would miss an opportunity to overhaul it by failing to act during this session.

Crop insurance is permanent law, so it would continue without a new farm bill. But again, lawmakers could miss a chance to revise it.

Although those programs are among the most contentious for lawmakers when it comes to farm bills, Vilsack emphasized the ancillary provisions such as conservation, trade, energy, and research.

The secretary said allowing the existing farm bill to expire would mean less support for research at land-grant universities, for block grants that go toward specialty-crop producers, and for the USDA’s renewable-energy initiatives, including biofuel production and development.

Vilsack noted that the existing farm bill also pays Brazil more than $100 million per year to prevent the South American country from imposing tariffs on American imports. Those penalties resulted from a 2009 World Trade Organization ruling that said the U.S. had provided inappropriate subsidies to the cotton industry.

Funding for those payments would eventually dry up without a new farm bill. “It’ll affect jobs and the competitiveness of American exports,” Vilsack said. “That’s a significant hit we take because the House didn’t do its job.”

The Senate bill makes plans to establish a new foundation that would attract private investment for agriculture research. So there again, lawmakers are staring at a potential missed opportunity, Vilsack said.

The agriculture secretary made no secret of his feelings about the House’s failure to approve the proposed 2013 farm bill.

“This is a really bad situation, and it didn’t have to happen,” Vilsack said. “The Senate is as ideologically divided as the House, but they found a way to lead and approve two farm bills [during the past two years] by wide margins.”

Last year, the House did not vote on a farm bill. “It’s a total failure of leadership,” Vilsack said.

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