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Congress Pushes to Prevent Spike in Milk Prices from 'Dairy Cliff' Congress Pushes to Prevent Spike in Milk Prices from 'Dairy Cliff'

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Congress Pushes to Prevent Spike in Milk Prices from 'Dairy Cliff'

photo of Niraj Chokshi
December 31, 2012

It was one of the best-received bits of news on Sunday, a day that saw little progress in talks to avert the fiscal cliff: Congress may yet avoid the “dairy cliff.”

A push to avoid the so-called dairy cliff--a Jan. 1 reversion to a half-century-old law that could double the price of milk--was one of the only topics that elicited cheers among House Republicans during a dinner conference on Sunday. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had said that a nine-month extension of the previous farm bill could be wrapped into a fiscal-cliff package, a move that would postpone the dairy cliff, among other things.

Even if the Senate failed to include a farm-bill measure, the House would "want to do something" on its own, said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., on Sunday. "Again, people want it fixed." But despite the broad interest in avoiding it, the dairy cliff is an issue that’s received broad attention only relatively recently.

The term first appeared in print in a mid-October story in the Record-Journal, a local newspaper in Meriden, Conn., according to a database search.

When the most-recent farm bill expired on Sept. 30, it set the nation’s dairy policy on track to revert to a 1949 law that would force the government to spend billions on price supports and drive up the price of milk. Chris Galen, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation, was calling it the “dairy cliff,” the paper reported in mid-October.

"It's still rather theoretical at this point--we've never had this happen before,” Galen told the paper. “We're not in the type of situation where there's a precedent."

It wasn’t until late November and early December that national news sources, such as The New York Times and National Public Radio, began reporting on the issue. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., warned of the consequences of the dairy cliff in an early December conference call. Other lawmakers began weighing in, too.

The recent concern with the dairy cliff may have something to do with why Galen and the National Milk Producers Federation began focusing on it two months ago: It's psychologically potent.

“When people talk about hundreds of billions of dollars in either spending cuts or tax increases, those numbers are very abstract,” he said. “When you talk about milk going up two, or maybe three, dollars a gallon, that’s something that people can identify with.”

And Galen said the NMPF decided to use the word "cliff" in describing the looming price hike to highlight the parallels between the fiscal cliff and the status of the farm bill.

“Both of these are indicative of the dysfunction of Congress,” he said. “Sometimes it takes something as simple and stark as the price of milk to get people to understand all of the rhetoric.”

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