by Brett Neely
WASHINGTON — It's been a bad summer for many farmers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Wednesday designated another 76 counties in six states as disaster areas due to the worsening drought.
No Minnesota counties have yet been declared disaster areas, but much of southern Wisconsin has.
Federal officials say the nationwide drought is likely to push food prices up by as much as 5 percent next year.
Against that backdrop, Congress is struggling to pass a new farm bill and possibly come up with disaster aid for farmers whose crops have withered in the field.
The Senate passed its farm bill last month with a strong, bipartisan majority. The House Agriculture Committee followed earlier this month, approving its bill with strong bipartisan support.
But House Republican leaders haven't promised a debate or a vote on that bill.
Bringing up a bill that would spend close to $400 billion over the next five years on nutrition programs such as food stamps would expose deep divisions within the GOP over how generous the social safety net should be.
Still, this week House Speaker John Boehner appeared to concede that the House would have to do something in light of the drought.
"We understand the emergency that exists out in rural America and we're concerned about addressing it as quickly as possible," Boehner said.
Department of Agriculture officials say 45 percent of the country's corn crop is already in poor or very poor condition.
That figure alone is enough for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee, to call for immediate action.
Corn is vital to the livestock industry, which includes hog and turkey farms in Minnesota. Klobuchar, a Democrat, points to provisions in the Senate farm bill that are supposed to provide help in times like these.
"If those corn prices go sky high, their feed goes sky high," Klobuchar said of famers. "Not only that, their animals are in trouble because of the heat. So, there's actually something in there that continues the program that actually went away this year that's very important."
She said House Republicans are taking a big chance if they don't advance the farm bill.
"I think it's a big mistake for them from a policy standpoint for the future of this country," Klobuchar said "Ag is our biggest export. We do not want to just pull the rug out from under rural America.
Instead of passing a new farm bill, it appears that House Republicans may try to extend the current farm bill for another year and pass a separate disaster aid package, sidestepping a debate over food stamps.
Nutrition programs including food stamps make up about 80 percent of the farm bill's nearly $100 billion a year cost.
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, wants a new bill passed rather than extending the current bill. He thinks that's possible before the current law expires later this year.
"This is going to work out somehow or another," Peterson said. "I still am optimistic that we're going to get this done by Sept. 30th."
The uncertainty over whether Congress will pass a bill and what's going to be in it has been a problem for farmers, Minnesota Corn Growers Association President John Mages said.
"If you know what the future for the next five years of the farm bill will be, that will help you decide whether to plant corn, soybeans or wheat, whatever your preference," Mages said.
Watching the process is former Clinton Administration Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.
He said that for more than 40 years, farm bills have passed thanks to an alliance between farmers and urban liberals that was brokered by lawmakers such as Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and Democratic Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota.
"Now, when you have all this shouting for a limited pot of money, I wouldn't say there's a divorce between the two interests but I would say they're needing some marital counseling," said Glickman, a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
Glickman said the difficulty lawmakers are having passing what's traditionally been a bipartisan bill even amid the worst drought in decades is a sign of the dysfunction that's plaguing everything Congress sets its sights on.
While Democrats and Republicans alike express confidence some kind of bill will pass, right now, it's not clear at all what that legislation will look like.