WASHINGTON – It looks as if milk prices won’t be doubling after the first of the year after all.
That’s because House and Senate negotiators from both parties agreed Sunday on a one-year extension of farm legislation that expired Sept. 30.
If that deal is passed by both houses of Congress before Tuesday, the intricate set of policies that regulate milk prices will remain just as they are – and the nation won’t automatically revert to a series of dairy policies dating from the 1940s.
Farmers, along with Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., had warned that going back to those ancient policies would double milk prices, prompting consumers to cut back on milk consumption and thereby inadvertently devastate the dairy industry.
In the end, though, fear of letting that happen appeared to overwhelm a deep divide that had prevented the House and Senate from agreeing on a new five-year farm bill.
The solution, as it often is in the current Congress, was to kick the can down the road.
“It is no longer possible to enact a five-year farm bill in this Congress,” said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. “Given this reality, the responsible thing to do ... is to extend the 2008 legislation for one year. This provides certainty to our producers and critical disaster assistance to those affected by record drought conditions.”
Shortly after the Senate passed its $500 billion, five-year farm bill, Lucas’ committee approved a long-term farm bill with deep cuts to farm subsidies and the food stamp program.
But the House Republican leadership, apparently concerned that some farm-state Republicans would join with Democrats concerned about the food stamp cuts to kill the measure, never brought that measure to the floor.
Both Houses will be in session today – New Year’s Eve – as Congress and the White House struggle toward a compromise to avoid the “fiscal cliff.”And while waiting for a deal, both houses could take up the legislation to avert the so-called “dairy cliff.”
Given the increasing unpopularity of those farm subsidies, it was not clear late Sunday whether a revolt would arise to try to stop the one-year extension.
But just in case, the House Agriculture Committee also filed two possible alternatives.
One is a one-month farm bill extension that excludes disaster relief funds and a new diary program, included in the longer extension, that aims to help farmers when milk prices are low and grain prices are high. The other merely extends current dairy policy while letting the rest of the 2008 farm bill lapse.