The 2014 Farm Bill Expired: What Now?

by Siena Chrisman

Published: 10/12/18, Last updated: 5/23/19

While farming happens out in the fields, a lot of decisions about farming practices, the farm economy, conservation, rural development and much more are actually made in Washington, DC, in the farm bill, a nearly $490 billion piece of legislation covering a wide array of issues from farm to fork. But the state of some farm policy is in limbo right now: the 2014 farm bill expired on September 30, just before a six-week Congressional recess. The farm bill is supposed to be rewritten every five years, but there can be delays, especially as Washington politics have become increasingly contentious. The 2014 bill, for example, was originally supposed to be passed in 2012, but political wrangling delayed its final passage by two years.

Why does the farm bill matter?

Before we get into what happens when the farm bill expires, let’s get clear what the bill is and does.

While it’s known as the “farm” bill, the overwhelming majority of spending (80 percent!) goes towards the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The legislative link between farming and nutrition programs in the farm bill began in the 1970s, as farm state legislators saw their numbers begin to decline. They struck a deal with supporters of the food stamp program to include it in the farm bill as a way to muster enough votes to pass the whole bill.

Terms to Know
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. It accounts for 80 percent of the farm bill's spending.

The other major sections of the bill address commodity policy (for farmers growing grains and other storable crops), conservation and crop insurance. For scale, these three farm-focused sections together account for less than half of the spending on SNAP. Several smaller sections cover a wide range of other issues and programs including farmers market promotion, forestry, rural business investment, support for minority and beginning farmers, sustainable agriculture, and much more. You can learn more about the scope of the farm bill on our farm bill issue page.

So what happens without a farm bill?

It depends. Some programs, like SNAP and commodity support programs, are permanently authorized and will continue as — at least for now. But about 40 “orphan” programs have funding that must be reauthorized in each new farm bill, and these are now frozen. This includes over $1 billion in conservation funding, possibly leaving farmers unable to sign up for next year’s conservation contracts. Other programs that are important for sustainable farming, minority and beginning farmers, rural economic development and more have also been frozen.

Even the programs with permanent authorization, however, do not continue indefinitely. At the end of the calendar year, several major programs revert to so-called “permanent law” — that is, the structure and funding outlined in the 1938 and 1949 farm bills. In practice, the threat of reverting to permanent law is used mostly as an incentive to get a farm bill passed on time, though it has not been a terribly effective threat in recent years.

What happens now?

Now that the farm bill has expired, Congress has two options for action when it returns in November. The first is to hash out the remaining sticking points and pass a new farm bill by the end of the year. If that is not possible, Congress can instead pass a short-term extension of the 2014 bill. Several extensions were passed in the two years that it took to pass the 2014 farm bill. A farm bill extension is better than no bill at all, but some extensions have failed to reauthorize the so-called orphan programs, leaving them in limbo and without funding, sometimes for a year or more. A responsible extension would fund these programs while the final bill is still being negotiated.

Watch this space and we’ll be sure to keep you updated on the latest developments.

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