Thatcher urges farmers to engage with Congress to get a farm bill
By Jennifer M. Latzke
The election didn’t change much in Washington, D.C., and if farmers and ranchers want movement on a farm bill in this lame-duck session they are going to have to communicate those messages to their congressmen and senators, according to Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of Congressional Relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. Thatcher spoke to Oklahoma Farm Bureau members at the organization’s annual meeting in November in Oklahoma City.
"We have the same president, the same Republican majority in charge of the House and the same Democratic majority in charge of the Senate," Thatcher said. "We will hear a lot in the next couple of weeks that they can work together, but actions speak louder than words." She added that she sees the trend will increase where both parties will legislate from their extremes and less from the middle. The loss of House Blue Dog Democrats, she explained, means a smaller voting bloc and little room for compromises that farm country needs.
"Four years ago there were about 50 Democratic Blue Dogs," she said. "Before this election there were 24 and after there are now 15. They've been replaced by representatives that lean more to the left." The same holds true for the loss of moderates in the Senate.
Adding to the gridlock will be the sheer amount of issues that Congress must address in this lame-duck session--from expiring tax provisions, to budget sequestration, to doctor Medicare reimbursements and more. And then, there's the valuable time spent by leaders in both the House and the Senate over committee assignments, chairmanships, and ranking member seats.
The Republicans have self-imposed term limits of six years for chairmen and ranking members on committees, Thatcher explained. This jockeying for seats means Sen. Pat Roberts, R-KS, might be pushed from the Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member seat. Over in the House, it was recently announced Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-KS, will no longer be on the House ag committee, despite representing the Big First congressional district, the single largest agriculturally producing district in the country.
The current hold-up on the farm bill is nutritional programs, Thatcher explained. "We do have a farm bill; it will cost about $1 trillion over the next 10 years," she said. "Of that, 79 percent is nutritional programs, 9 percent is crop insurance, about 9 percent is commodity programs, 6 percent is conservation and everything else, rural development, credit, research, fruit and vegetables, is way less than half of one percent. It really is more food bill than farm bill." Of that $1 trillion price tag, about $772 billion covers food and nutrition programs. Thatcher said the Senate's bill would cut $4 billion and the House bill would cut $16 billion from that title.
"That's $4 billion and $16 billion out of $772 billion and they can't come to an agreement," she said. Republicans, generally, want to cut way more than that $16 billion and Democrats want zero cuts to entitlements, she said.
Congress is running out of time, and that means it will be more likely that an extension will be passed for the farm bill, rather than a farm bill, Thatcher predicted. Whether it covers six months to one year, it will need changes. Specifically, it will need to include disaster assistance for livestock and revamp the Milk Income Loss Contract for dairy.
There's also been an attitude among non-rural legislators that farmers have been making money off of $8 corn and $17 soybeans, and Thatcher said that's been influenced by media reports and editorials taking the place of constituent communications. Many don't see the need for pushing more money into commodity programs when times are good.
"They have no idea about the expense of fertilizer or feed and they think you're rich," she said. "They don't understand that the people who produce cattle and hogs are feeding that corn and soybean meal. They lump all farmers together and view them as well off and not needing assistance."
Yet, the one thing that sways many of them to support crop insurance and safety net measures has been the drought and that same media coverage that's brought farmers to the nightly news.
"I think if the drought had a silver lining it was that members of Congress couldn't look at farmers in their districts and say, 'you're rich,'" she added. "They realized from the nightly news that indeed farmers are having problems and need a safety net that a lot used to say farmers didn't need. So, they understand the need for a safety net, but not much more."
The way that many of them connect with agriculture is via a farmers market, she added. "That's not exactly production agriculture, it's a sector but it's not the whole thing," Thatcher said. "We have 80 new congressmen, and had 89 new congressmen in the last election. That means come January we have one-third of the House with less than three years of experience." Those incoming freshmen will mean farm and commodity organizations will need their members to connect even more than ever. Especially when the next Congress convenes and the farm bill, if not already passed, will have to be reintroduced in both the House and Senate, then marked up in committees, voted on both floors and reviewed by the Congressional Budget Office.
"We know that after March 10 there will be new CBO scoring and we know there will be less money in the budget for agriculture," Thatcher said. "We can't reintroduce the bills because there won't be the same money available. If we don't pass this in the next few weeks we'll have a less usable safety net.
"I think the message is to be more engaged with Congress," Thatcher said. "It seems with this farm bill we've sat back and hoped it will happen. Unless members of Congress hear from farmers and ranchers that they have to get this done in the next few weeks, it's not going to happen."
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.