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ND delegation: Farm bill could come in early January

A farm bill won’t become reality before the first of the year, but all three members of the North Dakota political delegation on Friday sounded optimistic that legislation would be agreed upon early next month.

“This thing is very close to being done,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the only Democrat of the state’s three-person delegation. “Some of the more minor details need to be worked out and they’re just waiting for the Congressional Budget Office projections, in terms of costs. Once those are done, there will probably be some tweaks made to meet the fiscal targets that have been set.

“Fundamentally, they are done.”

Heading into the weekend, lawmakers seemed confident that the framework for a comprehensive farm bill — which has been in conference committee since different versions of the bill were passed by the House and Senate earlier this year — was in place.

With Congress now in recess for the holidays, a full vote on the farm bill could come as early as the second week in January.

The five-year farm bill passed in 2008 expired in September 2012 but was extended for 12 months.

Without a farm bill in place since Sept. 30, farm groups, including the American Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Union, have called for Congress to get a new five-year farm bill passed so farmers and others in agriculture will be better able to make business plans.

The House and the Senate have drafted different versions of a new $500 billion farm bill, but fighting over the food stamp program, as well as other spending provisions, has kept agreement at bay.

Farm bill supporters point out that only about 25 percent of the “farm bill” has to do with supports and subsidies for farmers; most of it goes to nutrition programs at home and abroad.

While not committing to saying it is a done deal, Heitkamp said North Dakotans eager for the announcement of a farm bill should rest easy over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

“I’m highly optimistic that we’re going to get a farm bill early next year,” Heitkamp said. “That’s going to be a top priority. A couple weeks ago, you were reading a lot in the press about things not well with farm bill negotiations. I never really took that as anything other than posturing and tough negotiations. I’ve done a few of these negotiations in the past and I can kind of read the tea leaves.”

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a member of the conference committee, had hoped to get a bill out for a full vote before Christmas, but said he’s become reserved to the fact that a vote won’t happen until the week of Jan. 6 — at the earliest.

Before letting out Thursday, the House passed a short-term measure that would extend the current law until the end of January. The vote was taken largely in an attempt to avoid an increase in dairy prices, known as the “dairy cliff,” though its chances of passage in the Senate appear slim.

“In my opinion, we’re close enough to an agreement that there should not be an extension, even though the House just passed one,” Hoeven said. “I want to keep the pressure on and I really think we’ll have a bill ready for a vote during the first couple weeks of January. Unless something happens, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have a vote at this point. I think we’ll get it passed.”

One of the largest sticking points for the bill has been an agreement on cuts to the federal food stamp program, which the House and Senate had not been close on.

Some in the agricultural community in western North Dakota have also been leery of possible new conservation measures, which are expected to be tied to crop insurance.

“This, like I’ve said before, is the number one job for any member from North Dakota and it looks like we’re going to get this done,” Heitkamp said. “For people who suffered losses during (the October Atlas blizzard), we’d also like to remind them that the farm bill will have livestock disaster provisions, which will be retroactive not only to 2013, but also 2012.”

Not having a farm bill is already affecting ranchers in western North Dakota and South Dakota who lost, in many cases, dozens or hundreds of cattle and sheep to storms. Without emergency farm bill provisions, they have not been indemnified.

Hoeven said a new farm bill “will include a livestock indemnity program and that will be retroactive and will apply to ranchers in North Dakota and South Dakota.”

Heitkamp said she has received indications from Oklahoma Republican Frank Lucas, the House Agriculture Committee Chairman, and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., that a vote will happen soon after lawmakers return in January.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said Friday he agrees with his Senate colleagues that a finished bill is likely forthcoming.

“The extension of the bill that the House passed was just to provide certainty about the dairy cliff,” Cramer said. “That was to ensure people that we’re not going to revert to the 1948 dairy law. Personally, I don’t know that that was necessary, but there is this legend that floats around that prices in the dairy case would double on Jan. 2. I doubt that’s the case. But, just to make sure that certainty is provided, we did pass an extension. I don’t think the Senate will pass it, but we thought it was the prudent thing to do.”

Cramer also echoed Heitkamp’s sentiment that farmers and ranchers should rest easy over the holidays.

“People should be confident that this will be taken up early in the session when we come back,” Cramer. “Once they get all the language drafted by the lawyers to meet the agreements of the principles, every committee member looks at the bill and signs off. There’s an actual physical process that will take a little time, but people should be confident we’ll get this done.”

Forum News Service reporter Stephen Lee contributed to this story.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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