The farm bill: Common ground or continued controversy?
By Sara Wyant
House and Senate conferees came together this week for their first official farm bill conference committee, tasked with finalizing legislation that was originally outlined more than two years ago. There were plenty of voices weighing in on what should or should not be included in the final package—in fact, 41 different lawmakers from the House and Senate will be sitting in the conference room at any one time.
After over two years of delay, one might be tempted to think that there will be a rush to seek common ground, move this bill out of conference and onto the president’s desk as soon as possible. That’s certainly the desire from most of the conferees we have interviewed and especially so for House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK, who will chair the conference committee.
However, there are plenty of differences between the House and Senate versions. Chief among them are cuts and reforms to the food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The Senate version proposes about $4 billion in cuts, while the House version proposes to reduce spending by almost $40 billion from the baseline spending over the next 10 years. In addition, the House would add several new requirements designed to tighten eligibility and reduce fraud.
For example, the House bill requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to authorize states to participate in a work-related requirement pilot program. Under this pilot, all SNAP participants (except for children, elderly, disabled, or parents with children under 1 year old) would be required to work or take part in job training for a minimum of 20 hours a week. In a boom to states, participating pilot states must evaluate their programs and can claim half of any SNAP savings.
There is no similar requirement in the Senate version, and President Barack Obama has already put the House on notice that he opposes their version of the nutrition title.
The nutrition title differences are so large that finding a compromise may require political leadership from “on high,” as Lucas likes to refer to the president, Speaker John Boehner, R-OH, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Dairy provisions are another hot spot, representing a big divide between dairy producers and the dairy processors and exporters. The producers want a dairy stabilization component in their new Dairy Security Act, which basically pays when milk margins drop. But the dairy processors, led by the International Dairy Foods Association, pushed to have what they describe as a “supply management” provision dropped via an amendment on the House floor.
Collin Peterson, D-MN, will be working hard to make sure that the stabilization language stays in the final bill, even though it is no longer in the House version. Boehner has long opposed any type of supply management and will be working equally hard to oppose.
Differences in the commodity title are also fairly controversial. Rice and peanut growers stand firmly behind the Price Loss Coverage program in the House version—maintaining that it’s the best program to help producers to deal with global price volatility and cycles when prices are much lower than they are currently. However, soybean, corn and canola groups are squarely opposed to “coupling” target prices to current year planting decisions, charging that the House provisions would make U.S. farm programs more vulnerable to potential World Trade Organization challenges.
The conservation title may be the most likely area for compromise. Both the House and Senate versions streamline and consolidate many of the existing conservation programs. Both reauthorize the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program with a few different changes regarding how the programs are implemented.
The Conservation Reserve Program, which currently stands at a maximum of 32 million acres, would be gradually reduced to a 25 million acre cap by 2018. The House version drops the enrollment cap a little faster and lower, down to 24 million acres in both fiscal years 2017 and 2018.
But a bitter feud is brewing over the subject of conservation compliance, which is currently required for anyone receiving commodity program payments.
Now that direct payments are likely to be eliminated in this farm bill, conservation and environmental groups want to require anyone receiving crop insurance subsidies to meet conservation compliance standards—or risk losing their premium subsidies. Earlier this year, those groups crafted a compromise with several farm and commodity organizations—winning support for their position in exchange for opposing new means testing restrictions on crop insurance.
The Senate version includes the conservation compliance language for crop insurance, while the House version does not.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Lucas is adamantly opposed to linking crop insurance premiums to conservation compliance regulations. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, supports the conservation compliance deal between farm and environmental groups. If this language is not in the final bill, she’s expected to support the new means testing limits, which are included in the Senate bill.
While these are some of the bigger challenges, they are certainly not the only ones. Even if the House and Senate can agree in conference, they must still wait and see if their respective chambers will pass their final compromise. And there’s no guarantee that Obama will sign this “final deal.”
If compromises cannot be reached, another farm bill extension could be in the cards.
So the timing of how this plays out is still anyone’s guess.
Rep. Steve King, R-IA, the third-ranking Republican member of the House Agriculture Committee, did not want to speculate as to when conferees would finish their work, but did note that despite the Sept. 30 expiration of the farm bill extension, most of the programs are continuing this fall. He expects lawmakers to finish by the end of the year.
“It doesn’t get critical until the end of the year,” King said. “But we don’t have a lot of days left.”
Editor’s note: Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant can be reached at www.agri-pulse.com.