Farm Bill hangs in the balance as crucial deadline looms

WASHINGTON (WJLA) - While much of the nation has been focusing on President Barack Obama's health care bill, there's another major battle taking place on Capitol Hill over pending legislation.

It's the Farm Bill, and it affects every single American. What more, it's in danger of expiring at year's end, and that could be catastrophic for the nation.

Very few pending bills before Congress could have such an immediate and negative impact on people across america, and debate over the Farm Bill has been fierce in both houses of Congress.

In an exclusive interview, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says that the mishandling of the Farm Bill could lead to major market disruptions; in his words, breakfast would be "much more expensive."

"(I) would have to go out into the marketplace and start purchasing commodities - milk, butter, cheese and grains at highly inflated prices," Vilsack said. "If I'm paying twice the market price, you can do the math."

The New Year's deadline that could send the price of milk skyward looms over congressional negotiators as they try to reach agreement on a five-year bill. They've been tripped up by differences over the nation's food stamp program and how to restructure farm subsidies.

Finding a compromise on cuts to the nation's $80 billion-a-year food stamp program has been the toughest obstacle over the last two years. The House passed a bill this summer that would cut $4 billion from food stamps - now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP - annually and allow states to create new work requirements for some recipients.

The Democratic Senate, backed by President Barack Obama, passed a farm bill with $400 million annual cut, or a tenth of the House cut. There also major disputes over how farmers crops should be calculated for subsidies.

Beyond the grocery store, the effects on the environment could be widespread. There has been significant progress cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, but no farm bill means no incentives to prevent pollution and runoff.

That could mean fewer crops, which means fewer crophands would be hired. And it's all just the beginning, Vilsack said.

"This is a pass/fail opportunity here," he said. "If they get a farm bill passed, they pass. If they fail to get a farm bill passed, they fail. It's that simple."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.