WASHINGTON -- As Congress looks to avert a government shutdown before the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30, one item that will not receive a congressional vote by that date will be a new farm bill.
The current statute expires at the end of the month. Lawmakers have spent months gathering feedback and listening to experts regarding possible changes to federal programs covering nutrition assistance, rural development, commodities and farm insurance.
Yet congressional leaders recognize the growing impossibility of Congress taking up a new farm bill without any draft proposals, a limited number of legislative days left before the Sept. 30 expiration date and a need to fulfill appropriations-related responsibilities.
"At this point, we're still in the thick of it," Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told reporters. "I don't have a timeline except I'm aiming [for] December, and we need to get this done."
Congress last passed a farm bill in December 2018 -- missing a September 2018 deadline to act -- when Republicans controlled both chambers of the legislative body. Now, the Democrat-controlled Senate and Republican-led House will need to reach a compromise and overcome slim majorities before sending a measure to President Joe Biden's desk.
Rep. Rick Crawford, a Republican from Jonesboro and a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said getting a deal between the Senate and House is stressful.
"I've been through three of them now, and they're not getting any easier," Crawford told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "It'd be nice if we could just sit down, write this thing, everybody agree on it and not even go to conference, but we're going to have to go to conference."
The Senate returned from its August recess last week, with House members scheduled back on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Agriculture leaders spent the break continuing to get feedback on issues through listening sessions across the country with producers and other stakeholders.
Sen. John Boozman, of Rogers, the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, spent time in North Dakota, Alaska, Mississippi and Texas meeting with Senate colleagues and agriculture leaders about issues facing states and communities.
"What we're trying to do is realize, first of all, that a one-size [bill] doesn't fit all. That things in agriculture are regional," he said.
"Trying to get the different problems to the surface so we can work on those and take care of everyone as opposed to one-size-fits-all is really what we're trying to do with the farm bill."
While Congress will likely miss the Sept. 30 deadline, Boozman said current farm bill policies can continue until Jan. 1, describing New Year's Day as the "drop-dead date" for action.
"We're in the process now of getting all that we learned by all of the different sessions, getting that on paper," he added.
A majority of the farm bill's related spending will not pertain to farming, but rather nutrition programs for low-income families like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The Congressional Research Service estimates that the next farm bill's nutrition title will make up 84% of its $1.5 trillion baseline.
"We want to make sure that money is well-spent," Boozman said. "We want to make sure that money is going to the people that desperately need it, and we do have a lot of hungry people in our country. And also, we want to make sure that the job-training programs -- which the farm bill helps to support -- are doing a good job of helping individuals get into a situation where they can make a living wage."
A top concern for Boozman is ensuring that farmers can access adequate risk-management tools. The senator said producers need assurance that they can "go to the bank and borrow the money that they need to go forward."
The farm bill's Title I covers assistance to farmers, such as insurance coverage during market shifts, financial aid and income support. The existing Price Loss Coverage Program -- which provides assistance to farmers if a commodity's price falls below a set reference level -- currently uses numbers set in 2012, meaning producers received the same amounts of funds amid changing production costs and inflation.
"It has just made those Title I programs less and less relevant to farmers," said Brandy Rennicke Carroll, the Arkansas Farm Bureau's director of commodity activities and market information.
"As that safety net becomes less relevant, it can make it more difficult for farmers to obtain operating loans because they don't have that in their back pocket as a protection."
Crawford said inaction with the Price Loss Coverage Program is the top talking point in his conversations with producers.
"We're behind the eight-ball," he said. "We're still using 2012 pricing data to formulate a PLC program that really isn't meeting the economic standard we need to support farmers."
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recognized the importance of passing a new farm bill during remarks on the Senate floor last week, but both additionally acknowledged the pressing need to prevent a government shutdown.
While the farm bill authorizes programs, congressional appropriators are responsible for determining initial funding levels.
"You really can't have one without the other," Crawford said. "The two have to work in concert to make sure we are delivering the best legislative outcomes for the people that rely on it."
The Senate will begin consideration of a "minibus" consisting of three spending bills this week, including the measure covering agriculture, rural development and the Food and Drug Administration.
Senate appropriators passed all 12 appropriations measures before the August recess with bipartisan support. Boozman is a Senate appropriator and the top Republican on the subcommittee handling military construction and veterans affairs.
The full House passed one spending bill before the August recess, but work was brought to a halt with conservative members of the Republican majority pushing for deeper spending cuts.
When House appropriators considered its funding bills, they approved spending levels lower than amounts set in the debt ceiling agreement between the Biden administration and the lower chamber's Republican leaders in May.
"We're moving on regular order in the Senate on appropriations," Stabenow said. "It's my intent to move on regulator order [with the farm bill] -- bring a bill to the floor, have amendments from members -- to be able to get this passed."