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Hill of Beans: Playing Injured: What Congress Can Accomplish in a ‘Lame Duck’ Session

Nov 01, 2018

By Tony Eberhard, IDFA Vice President of Legislative Affairs

Welcome to “Hill of Beans,” a periodic update by Tony Eberhard about the association’s work in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate to advance dairy industry priorities. After working on the Hill for various members of Congress and senators since 2001, Eberhard gives IDFA readers a former Hill staffer’s take on what is going on and how it affects our priorities. 

“There is a lot of work being done in the House and Senate that never makes the headlines but affects members’ bottom lines, and I’m hoping these updates will prove useful to you and your organization,” Eberhard said. “I’m titling these updates ‘Hill of Beans’ because to many in national media this information might not amount to much, but to our industry’s agenda in Congress, it is critical.” Read the update below.

Anything labeled “lame duck” is usually thought of as ineffective and unproductive, but do not let the name fool you. Lame duck sessions, held when members of Congress return to Washington after elections, can be times of rapid legislative action.

When lame duck sessions result in a stack of bills on the president’s desk, it can be for a variety of reasons. Sometimes lame duck-session productivity is driven by deadlines, such as an expiring appropriation or authorization. At other times, it is because members of Congress do not want to be forced to start all over again with a new Congress on legislation they have been working nearly two years to pass. In some cases, congressional negotiators, faced with a new political alignment that may be detrimental to a particular bill, can find the extra motivation they need to come to the table and make a deal.

True, some lame duck sessions are just that – lame – but others have been highly productive. Look at 2010 when President Obama faced his first midterm election. In the weeks after the election, Congress passed a defense authorization bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act and a tax-cut extender package, while the Senate ratified an arms control treaty with Russia. With all these accomplishments occurring in less than two months, the 2010 lame duck session became one of the most prolific in history.


This session is instructive today for two reasons: 1) it followed an election that handed control of the House of Representatives back to the Republicans while maintaining a Democratic majority in the Senate, and 2) President Trump is facing his first midterm election this year. If some of today’s prognosticators are right, the 2018 lame duck session could create a similar dynamic with the Democrats, the opposing party, retaking the House and Republicans keeping the Senate.

Just like in 2010, this scenario would mean the president and his party would have a few weeks to pass legislation with an all-Republican Congress before the new House arrives in January. Also like in 2010, the Republicans would be short of the 60 votes needed in the Senate to overcome Democratic filibusters, so Republicans would still need to negotiate with the Senate minority to move legislation. As we have seen in recent years, anything can happen on Election Day, and today’s polling numbers may not hold up through next week. But given current trends, the events of 2010 are worth examination.

New Farm Bill or Extension?

Although the 2010 Congress did not have an expired farm bill on its plate as we do now, we only have to look back to 2012 to see how it was handled in a lame duck session. When the 2008 farm bill expired on Sept. 30, 2012, the reauthorization debate carried on through the November elections and into the lame duck session. With farm commodity programs on the verge of reverting to permanent law, the lame duck Congress voted to extend the 2008 farm bill until September 30, 2013.

But that session is a good example of how, even when there is a lot of pressure to get a bill, the deal just cannot get done. At that time, dairy was a big part of the debate, but so was the future of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. Just like today, the House-passed version of the 2012 farm bill made more significant changes to SNAP than the Senate version. Without agreement among the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, House and Senate leadership ultimately stepped in to cut an extension deal. It is fair to say that, in 2018, the most significant impasse between the House and Senate is SNAP.

IDFA’s Legislative Agenda

The ongoing farm bill debate brings us to IDFA’s lame duck agenda. Dairy processors need the risk management tools that both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill would provide by changing the Class 1 “mover” formula for farm milk prices and offering dairy farmers an improved safety net.

Meanwhile, the SNAP milk incentive programs forwarded by both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees would encourage SNAP participants to consume more milk and help them get the nine essential nutrients milk provides. It is not a forgone conclusion that 2018 events will be a repeat of 2012, resulting in a farm bill extension, but movement by Congress on the SNAP negotiations will be necessary to avoid an extension.

Another IDFA priority for the lame duck session is passage of the Codifying Useful Regulatory Definitions (CURD) Act, which is legislation to define the term “natural cheese” in federal statute. Congress can deliberate for weeks on a single piece of legislation or it can move quickly through unanimous consent. After months of building consensus behind the scenes, our champions, led by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., are working to set the CURD Act up for speedy consideration in the lame duck session.

We’re also working to increase funding for research to identify innovative solutions to ice cream waste as well as updates to the Food and Drug Administration’s food standards of identity as part of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 Agriculture Appropriations bill. The big question is whether Congress will be able to pass full-year funding for the seven remaining appropriations bills. Agriculture Appropriations is one of the bills that could get extended at current levels without new funding priorities should Congress fail to agree on more controversial federal funding issues. The administration’s call for funding “The Wall” at our border with Mexico will likely loom large in this debate.

With an eye toward the midterm elections next week, we do not yet know whether this lame duck session will be productive or not, but the IDFA legislative team will continue to work with our congressional supporters to achieve as many positive outcomes for dairy processors as possible before the end of 2018.                                    

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