Farm bill negotiations continue along with 2008 law
By Larry Dreiling
The House has passed an extension of farm law until the end of January as lawmakers try to finish work on a new five-year farm bill.
Both the Senate and the House have passed farm bills this year, but they differ on how much to cut the nation’s food stamp program and how to restructure farm subsidies.
The House passed the extension amid fears that the expiration of dairy subsidies at the end of the year will cause milk prices to rise. But Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has assured Congress that will not happen before the end of January.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said the Senate will not pass an extension because it is unnecessary. Some senators argue an extension could reduce pressure to pass a farm bill.
Still, optimism about concluding a farm bill in January are “moving right down the path,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK.
“Very optimistic, we’re closing in,” echoed Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, after an early morning session Dec. 13 with Lucas. “There’s no question in my mind that we’ll be able to come together and have a farm bill that we can take action on in January.”
Lucas and Stabenow were quoted in the Capitol Hill publication Politico.
The two ranking members, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-MN, and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-MS, also attended the hour-long session, which began at 8 a.m. The new confidence reflects a collective relief that new scores from the Congressional Budget Office will help the two sides reconcile differences over the commodity title.
“We’ve gotten scores back that look very good, very workable,” Stabenow told reporters. “It puts us in good shape.”
Lucas left open the possibility of another face-to-face meeting before Christmas and it is known that legal questions regarding some of the proposed payment limits attached to the commodity title are still an open question in the talks.
“We have set aside time if necessary,” Lucas said. ‘There are some issues that have to be sorted out by the lawyers and we’re going to discuss it. If we need to be together, I’ll be back from Oklahoma.”
But the upbeat tone, Politico reported, signaled the focus is already shifting toward preparing other members of the House-Senate conference for votes during the week of Jan. 6, 2014.
Lucas and Stabenow to date have released few details publicly, and both are leery of saying too much before January and risking attacks over the recess.
“Your mother wouldn’t let you open your Christmas present before Christmas morning,” Lucas said, fending off questions from reporters.
That said the outlines are there for a five-year package that will include new savings from both the commodity and nutrition titles while expanding on crop insurance alternatives that have become an ever-bigger part of the farm safety net.
Negotiators appear to have settled on a 24-million-acre target for enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program. And Stabenow is expected to get most of what she was seeking in attaching new conservation compliance rules to crop insurance, which is a priority for environmental and wildlife groups.
“I think we are going to have a really well-balanced bill,” she told Politico before the meeting. But she shied away from confirming any specifics.
Elsewhere, Stabenow is resisting the very deepest nutrition cuts proposed by Republicans in the House. But she has agreed to changes that would crack down on what many see as an abusive practice by states, which distribute token amounts of low-income fuel assistance to food stamp households to help them gain higher benefits.
Under this practice, known as “heat-and-eat,” as little as $1 per year in fuel aid can be used to claim a higher utility deduction and leverage far more in monthly food stamp benefits, especially in high cost cities like New York. By insisting that the fuel aid be no less than $20, lawmakers hope to rein in such schemes and the CBO says the potential savings are as much as $8.7 billion over 10 years.
Mary Clare Jalonick of The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.