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Must farm bills be five-year bills?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The House and Senate Agriculture Committees are marking up 2013 farm bills this week. Both are five-year bills covering crop and fiscal years 2014 through 2018. That these are five-year bills should not surprise anyone--after all, many media reports tell us that a farm bill is a five-year bill. But is this accurate? Must farm bills be five-year bills? Let’s examine a data set of the eight most recent farm bills.

This table shows how many years were covered by each farm bill from 1973 to 2008 under two scenarios: the bill as enacted—i.e., the number of years specified in the original law and the actual length after post-enactment amendments. The 1996 farm bill was amended to reduce its length from seven to six years, and the 2008 farm bill was amended to extend many major provisions from five to six years. This scenario assumes that 2008 is not extended again.

Number of Years   Covered by Selected Farm Bills

Farm Bill

1973

1977

1981

1985

1990

1996

2002

2008

  As enacted

4

4

4

5

5

7

6

5

  Actual length

4

4

4

5

5

6

6

6

Six years is the actual length after amendments of the three most recent farm bills—2008, 2002 and 1996. The range as enacted is five to seven years. Six years is also the average (mean) length for the three farm bills under both scenarios.  For the five older farm bills, the actual lengths and lengths as enacted are the same at four or five years, while the average length of the five bills is 4.4 years. (The average could also be defined as five or six years, depending on the choice of starting and ending points.)

Farm bills are written for economic, budget, policy, and political conditions prevailing at the time of enactment or amendment, and these conditions change over time. This analysis doesn’t include reasons for, or speculation on why a particular farm bill is a particular length.

With the exception of appropriations bills, whose provisions largely expire at the end of each fiscal year, there is no standard length of a bill in the Congress. Many bills—besides farm bills—provide operating and funding authority for a specific number of years. Some laws, such as the Federal Crop Insurance Act and a few farm bill provisions, have no expiration date. Their provisions continue “forever” as originally written unless the Congress chooses to pass a new law that amends them, as farm bills often do for crop insurance.

Various factors come into play when considering the length of a farm bill.

  • Has the length being considered been used before—i.e., does it have a precedent?  Precedent is important on the Hill, especially on issues of committee jurisdiction, but elsewhere, too. Having done something before at times makes doing it again easier. As shown above, there are precedents from the most recent eight farm bills for four-, five-, six- and seven-year bills.
  • Will the last year of the bill be an election year? The Agriculture Committees aim to finish a new farm bill by the last year of a current farm bill so the new provisions are in place when current provisions expire. As the defunct 2012 farm bills showed, enacting bills in election years can be difficult. But they also show that predicting other factors that may affect the length of the farm bill process is difficult, and bills can unexpectedly spill over into an election year and beyond. The House Agriculture Committee had its first hearing for the next farm bill on April 21, 2010. No one then imagined that the Committees would face so many obstacles that three years and 25 days later, we still don’t have a new farm bill.
  • What are the baseline and other budget considerations? One consideration is that programs funded only for the life of the bill—rather than for the 10 years of a CBO cost estimate—would have higher 10-year costs with, for example, a six-year bill than with a five-year bill. The 2008 farm bill had many such programs. A cursory examination of the CBO scores for the 2013 farm bills found at least 12 such programs/provision in the House bill and 16 in the Senate. An alternative is, of course, to end funding for the programs before the last year of the farm bill.

As the scope and associated costs of farm bills have broadened, and as farm bills—and legislative and budget processes—have become more complicated and contentious, the farm bill process has lengthened.  The 1990 farm bill process, from first hearings to enactment, took less than a year. As noted above, we are more than three years and counting on this one. Such a long process affects many groups—members and staff of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, Congressional support agencies (especially the Congressional Budget Office), USDA and Office and Management and Budget leaders and employees, and hundreds of interest groups. It is hard to imagine that many of these people are eager to do this again soon. 

In the May 14 farm bill markup, many Senators stated they want a five-year farm bill. Surely they were using the term "five-year farm bill" to indicate their preference for a multi-year farm bill rather than another extension of the 2008 farm bill--not a preference for a five-year bill as opposed to a four- or six-year bill. Political feasibility and its many components—or possibly inertia—will determine the length of the farm bill. Members of Congress will have the choice of when the many people involved in writing farm bills, including themselves and their staffs, will begin the process again.


Craig Jagger Craig Jagger (craigjagger1@gmail.com)
President, Legis Consulting

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The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.