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January 4, 2013

Federal farm bill extension evidence of lost clout

WASHINGTON — A patchwork extension of federal farm programs passed as part of a larger “fiscal cliff” bill keeps the price of milk from rising but doesn’t include many of the goodies that farm-state lawmakers are used to getting for their rural districts.

House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders who spent more than a year working on a half-trillion-dollar, five-year farm bill that would keep subsidies flowing had to accept in the final hours a slimmed-down, nine-month extension of 2008 law with few extras for anyone.

With the new Congress opening Thursday, they’ll have to start the farm bill process over again, most likely with even less money for agriculture programs this year and the recognition that farm interests have lost some of the political clout they once held.

“I think there’s a lot of hurt feelings, that all of this time and energy was put into it and you’ve got nothing to show for it,” said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said it even more bluntly just after she learned that the bare-bones extension would be part of the fiscal cliff deal.

“There is no way to explain this,” she said angrily as the deal came together New Year’s Eve.

After Congress failed to pass a farm bill earlier last year, the legislation became tangled in the fiscal cliff talks as dairy subsidies were set to expire Jan. 1 and send the price of milk to $6 or $7 a gallon. The White House and congressional leaders negotiating the fiscal cliff had agreed that the bill would somehow have to avert that “dairy cliff.”

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