WASHINGTON With a kick-off hearing on Wednesday, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee will begin the long process of overhauling U.S. farm policy, which likely won't finish until late 2012.
The arduous and contentious process can consume a couple of years with input from lawmakers, the White House and dozens of farm, food, trade and environmental groups.
An estimated two-thirds of the existing $289 billion U.S. farm law, which expires at the end of September 2012, goes to nutrition programs such as food stamps and school nutrition. It also includes farm support programs, land stewardship, biofuel development and specialty crop programs.
The 1996, 2002 and 2008 farm laws were completed a year later than targeted due to arguments over funding and changes in farm program structure. U.S. farm supports date from the Depression era.
Here is how the process works:
* The House and Senate Agricultural committees begin with hearings to review how the farm law is working, what changes are needed, and how much funding would be available. The first hearing by the House Agriculture Committee is on April 21.
* Lawmakers conduct meetings with trade groups and hold hearings outside of Washington for local constituents.
* The White House and Agriculture Department sometimes gather ideas at forums around the country before proposing legislation to Congress or presenting books that lay out the case for various reforms.
* Often a final round of hearings is held in Washington before the bill-drafting process begins.
SIGNS OF GROWTH
* In the most intense form of drafting, subcommittees debate and vote on proposals, usually working from a chairman's "mark," or draft, which can be amended. With a larger membership, the House Agriculture Committee is more likely than its Senate counterpart to employ subcommittee "mark up."
* The entire Agriculture Committee weighs in and approves a final version of the bill for floor debate. Elements can be added, refined or deleted from any subcommittee draft.
* By this point, major proposals for reform have been tested. Survivors are on track to become law. It is difficult to revive an idea rejected by committee, so some sponsors wait until floor debate to seek a vote on reforms.
* Eventually, each chamber of Congress passes its farm ball. There is no rule on who must act first.
TIME FOR HARVEST
* The usual format is for the Senate and House to appoint negotiators to reconcile differences in the bills so a final, identical version can be submitted to a vote in each chamber.
* If the bill passes, it will go to the president to sign or veto.
* If vetoed, the bill returns to the House and Senate which vote to override the president's veto or write a new bill. A two-thirds majority is needed to override a veto and enact the law.
(Editing by David Gregorio)