The combination of significant tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts, known as the “fiscal cliff,” is just 24 hours away, and still Washington has no solution to the crisis. Over the weekend, there were glimpses of hope that there might be a last minute deal, but so far there has been no formal progress toward avoiding the so-called cliff.

“There’s still time left to reach an agreement, and we intend to continue negotiations,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said on the Senate floor Sunday, but the upper chamber was also not slated to vote on anything until going back into session at 11 a.m. Monday. Since Friday, Vice President Joe Biden was reportedly in direct talks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), which some viewed as a good sign, but as of late Sunday night there was no deal to speak of.

The automatic spending cuts, otherwise known as sequestration, which are actually slated to begin in 48 hours (just one day after the Bush tax cuts expire), would have a major impact on critical food safety agencies: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Michael Taylor, FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods, said in September he believes sequestration would be “a huge blow to our progress on food safety.” The Congressional Budget Office estimates that FSMA would take about $1.5 billion over five years to implement, but the agency has been given just a small fraction of that to bolster food safety efforts. Many food safety advocates are worried that FDA won’t be able to do more with less.

“It will significantly slow down their progress,” said Chris Waldrop, the director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, earlier this month. “Both FDA and FSIS are very personnel-heavy agencies so an 8.2 percent cut will hurt them more than other agencies…it will mean fewer inspectors and scientists.”

Under sequestration, FDA would see a $318 million budget reduction, about $71 million of which would come out of the agency’s food program. FSIS, the agency charged with ensuring the safety of meat, poultry and processed egg products, would have to shave $86 million from its budget. CDC, which monitors foodborne illnesses and tracks multistate outbreaks, would lose $464 million.

Farm Bill

Since Congress let the farm bill expire at the end of September stakeholders are watching this issue very closely, especially as experts predict milk prices could double if the dairy program expires (the so-called “dairy cliff”). The bill doesn’t have a lot directly to do with food safety (aside from the fighting over catfish inspection, which was eliminated in the Senate version, and a few grant programs, but it’s the backbone of U.S. agricultural policy and is normally renewed every five years or so.

On Sunday, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, announced she will support a one-year extension of the 2008 farm bill, after long insisting that only a full renewal of the bill was acceptable. Other key lawmakers have coalesced around an extension, but it’s not clear exactly how or when the measure will proceed.

Stabenow blamed Republicans for the holdup on the legislation. “While the Senate passed a bipartisan five-year Farm Bill in June that cut subsidies and reduced the deficit, the lack of action by the House Republican leadership has put us in a situation where we risk serious damage to our economy unless we pass a temporary extension,” she said.

“If a new Farm Bill is not passed in the next few days, Agriculture Committee leaders in both chambers and both parties have developed a responsible short-term Farm Bill extension that not only stops milk prices from spiking, but also prevents eventual damage to our entire agriculture economy,” added Stabenow. “It is critical that we pass a five-year Farm Bill that gives farmers and ranchers the certainty they need to plan for the future. If a new Farm Bill doesn’t pass this Congress we’ll soon hold another mark-up and just keep working until one is enacted next year.”

Congressman Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, who has been urging House leadership to take up the farm bill for months, told reporters that he’s hopeful the extension could be enacted by the New Year.

“It is not perfect — no compromise ever is — but it is my sincere hope that it will pass the House and Senate and be signed by the president by Jan. 1,” said Lucas.