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As Congress Prepares To Return To Washington, Farm Bill Stalemate Remains

A talking point on the campaign trail, but negotiations have gone nowhere. Uncertainty as Congress returns.

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — For all the lofty rhetoric about the need for bipartisanship and cooperation that has marked the closing weeks of the 2012 election, lawmakers will return to work later this month to face the exact same sort of gridlock that has paralyzed Washington for two years.

And no other issue typifies that dysfunction like the reauthorization of the nation's agriculture and food stamp assistance bill, a five-year measure that remains mired in intraparty disagreement among Republicans.

During negotiations prior to recess, fiscal conservatives opposed spending for farm subsidies, while farm-state Republicans insisted that the money was necessary.

That stalemate was not broken, and farm-state lawmakers, who hoped a compromise would be reached prior to recess in September, were forced to return empty-handed to their districts and states. Meanwhile, the five-year bill expired at the beginning of October.

Since then, even as negotiations have continued on other topics — the Gang of Six held early discussions about reducing the federal deficit, for example — the farm bill has languished, according to congressional staffers of both parties, and lawmakers are no closer to a compromise.

Part of the delay might have been deft political strategy.

"Among top House Republicans, I think there was concern about President Obama being able to sign a farm bill in the middle of an Iowa corn field," one House Republican aide said.

During recess, farm interests were optimistic that negotiations would begin again.

"We certainly had our hopes that there would be some kind of discussion going on, but reality suggested that in many parts of the country it's been a pretty tough campaign season," said Dale Moore, deputy executive director of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Because Congress will need to address the looming fiscal cliff during its upcoming lame-duck session, there is no guarantee that the farm bill will be addressed even then. Much will also depend on whether the White House changes hands.

With Congress facing a full slate of hot-button issues, "we're pragmatic enough to know that we're going to have to make sure we're as close to the front of the line as we can be," Moore said. He added, "Hopefully they heard a lot from their constituents."

At the very least, farm-state candidates have certainly received an earful from their opponents on the campaign trail.

In the South Dakota congressional debate Oct. 18, the candidates spent more than 10 minutes of an hour-long debate discussing the farm bill.

"With a drought going on and with the farm bill set to expire, you would have thought that our members of Congress would be focused on this issue," said Matt Varilek, a Democrat.

"A five-year farm bill absolutely needs to get done," Rep. Kristi Noem, Varileck's Republican opponent, responded.

In Iowa, Rep. Steve King, a Republican, has been challenged on the issue by Christine Vilsack, a Democrat whose husband, Tom Vilsack, is the federal secretary of agriculture.

King has "all but assured that it will come up for a vote after the election," said Tim Hagle, a politics professor at the University of Iowa. Meanwhile, Vilsack has argued that King was ineffective because he wasn't able to bring the bill to a vote in the House prior to recess.

"In a sense it's the name of the bill" that has made it an issue in that race, Hagle noted. "When we say 'farm bill,' it perks up the ears of people in an agriculture state."

Indeed, only a fraction of the bill addresses agricultural issues, while most of it — 80 percent — dictates funding for food stamps. The discussion over how much to cut from that program is a major reason the bill has been held up; the Senate has recommended that roughly $4 billion in funding be cut from food stamps, while the House Agriculture Committee passed a version that would splice approximately $16 billion.

But a five-year bill also lets farmers know in advance how much money the federal government will send in subsidies — a safety net that can stave off uncertainty in the industry. That's why many farmers have also opposed a one-year extension that would allow Congress more time to work out kinks in the five-year legislation.

In the absence of a compromise, and with Congress no closer to reaching one, many farmers have been left unnerved. In one trade publication, the High Plains Journal, a melodramatic headline in mid-October read, "Life without a farm bill — Is it worth living?"

"Farmers have been trained generationally to operate within the confines of government programs," the article's author, Ken Root, wrote. "You might compare the current plight of not having the assurance of a farm bill to a person from New York City being suddenly relocated to the plains of North Dakota and becoming paralyzed by the view of a distant horizon and exposure to the natural surroundings."