Add This To The Fiscal Cliff: Congress Faces A 'Milk Cliff' Too

Dec 5, 2013
Originally published on December 6, 2013 10:57 am
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. So few days left, so much left to do. The Senate comes back to Washington next week. At the same time, the House will be trying to wrap things up and leave town by next Friday. Among the things that remain undone - the farm bill, the budget and a whole bunch of year-end housekeeping.

Here to tell us where things are going if anywhere is NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith. And Tam, let's start with the farm bill. And something that we've been hearing a lot about lately is called the dairy cliff. Without a farm bill, milk prices could double sometime after January 1, so explain what the dairy cliff is.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In short, without a new farm bill, dairy policy will revert to 1949 law, when price supports were much higher. So the government would be forced to buy dairy products at elevated prices, leading to warehouses full of cheese and milk and shortages for consumers and $7-a-gallon milk, if you can find it. It wouldn't happen immediately, but it would happen relatively early in the year without a farm bill.

BLOCK: So with the specter of the dairy cliff hanging over our head, what's the prognosis on the farm bill?

KEITH: Negotiations are underway, and they're optimistic, they say, the negotiators. The issues include how to structure the crop insurance program, whether people who own farms but who aren't actively working on the farms should get subsidies, and just how much to cut from the food stamp program - though we're told that that might be less of an issue than some of the others.

Commodity groups are fighting with each other. And, you know, it's good old farm bill fighting. Debbie Stabenow is a Michigan Democrat and chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. And we spoke with her yesterday as she left a closed-door meeting with the top Democrats and Republicans who are negotiating this.


DEBBIE STABENOW: We made great progress, good steps. Staff are doing some work on specifics and on some scores and so on. But we're making great progress.

KEITH: But there were no meetings today. It seems they're waiting on those scores which are Congress speak for just how much the various policies would cost or save. And House Speaker John Boehner was asked about the farm bill earlier today, and he wasn't so optimistic.


JOHN BOEHNER: I'm not seeing any real progress on the farm bill. And so if we've got to pass a one-month extension of the farm bill, I think we're prepared to do that.

KEITH: Which means we probably shouldn't stock up on milk yet because if there's an extension, no dairy cliff.

BLOCK: OK. So they're kicking the milk can down the road.

KEITH: So to speak.

BLOCK: Apart from the farm bill, Tam, you've also been following the budget conference. And that's the group of House and Senate Budget Committee members trying to figure out about what to do about overall spending and the sequester. So any progress there?

KEITH: It looks like they are making progress. Staff that I talk to say that an announcement isn't imminent, but that they are closing in on an agreement. And here's some of the broad outlines. They're working on something that would set spending levels for the federal government for the next two years. They would partially replace the sequester. Those are the across-the-board automatic spending cuts. It would be done with a mix of spending cuts as well as new nontax revenue, so this would be some sort of fees.

This means that the defense cuts that Republicans have been ringing alarms about won't happen. And some of the nondefense cuts won't happen either. And it could break the cycle of governing from crisis to crisis to crisis. It would be a small deal, for sure. One thing that is holding things up, though, is unemployment benefits.

The extended benefits are set to expire at the end of this year. About 1.3 million people could be knocked off of unemployment as a result of this. Democrats are now saying they want this to be part of a budget deal. Republicans are not so fond of that idea. And that's apparently one of the things that's being discussed behind closed doors as they try to reach an agreement.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Tamara Keith - Tamara, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.