Farm bill conference begins
By Larry Dreiling
Under the symbols of giant eagles in the House Ways and Committee chambers, negotiators for House and Senate members began talks Oct. 30 on crafting a compromise farm bill.
Farm-state lawmakers have been pushing the farm bill for more than two years, and the conference negotiations represented the opening round in final talks. If the bill is not passed by the end of the year and current farm law is not extended, permanent farm law would go into effect, meaning certain dairy supports would expire that could raise the price of milk. Farmers would start to feel more effects next spring.
“It took us years to get here but we are here,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK. “Let’s not take years to get it done.”
“There are 16 million men and women whose jobs rely on the strength of agriculture,” echoed his Senate counterpart, Debbie Stabenow, D-MI. “I am confident we won’t let them down.”
It was Lucas who set a somber tone as he opened the conference, which was taken up by five-minute speeches from more than 25 members of the House and Senate, taking turns in a bipartisan and bicameral method.
“I take this seriously. My colleagues in this room know this is personal for me. I live in a part of the country where bad policy nearly destroyed the way of life for the people in my district. I don’t plan to be a part of a process that creates bad policy for agriculture and rural America,” Lucas said.
“I’ve said this many times before, but it is worth saying again: A safety net must be written with bad times in mind. A farm bill should not guarantee that the good times are the best, but rather that the bad times are manageable. A safety net should provide flexibility and choice to meet the unpredictable nature of farming.”
Lucas told of the three-year-long farm bill reauthorization process, and how much has happened in that time.
“Last year, we were concerned about a drought of epic proportions that was gripping a majority of the nation and with it endangering vast areas of productive agriculture, Lucas said. “For some parts of the country, including my state of Oklahoma, that was the second consecutive year of drought conditions.
“Meanwhile, some places like Missouri saw record-breaking floods causing economic devastation. Today we are talking about a rare, destructive, and early blizzard that struck South Dakota this month causing our friends in the north to lose tens of thousands of cattle and sheep.
“When you understand what farmers do for a living, you understand the need for an effective safety net. When you understand that these catastrophic events can happen all across the country impacting different types of agricultural producers at any given time, you understand the safety net cannot be one-size-fits-all.”
Conferees will have several tough issues to resolve, including how to restructure some farm payments as they phase out others and an overhaul of dairy supports.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-KS, a conferee who chaired the House agriculture panel in the 1990s, said the farm bill process has already gone on too long.
“We’re going to lose credibility if we don’t get this bill done,” he told the other farm-state lawmakers. “We have to get this bill done.”
In his opening remarks, Roberts noted the differences in not only the House and Senate versions of the farm bill, but regional differences within the Republican Party, as well.
“A modern farm bill should not create planting, marketing, or international trade distortions. Let me be clear. Target prices should be decoupled, and the government should not set prices at a level that practically guarantee profit, instead of acting as a risk management tool,” Roberts said.
That set off a reply by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-GA, the former chair and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
“While I understand there are different ideas about what safety net is best, I urge my colleagues to recognize that one program doesn’t work for all crops. Both (House and Senate) bills before us attempt to provide producers with options to find what works best for them, and that is a step in the right direction.
“When producers don’t feel that the revenue-based programs, or ‘shallow-loss’ programs work for them, they need to be provided an option to manage their risk, and I urge my fellow conferees to remember the importance of giving producers choices.
“Also, I would like to recognize that the upland cotton policies contained in the Senate and House versions embody fundamental reform that meet our commitments in the World Trade Organization. The legislation eliminates or changes all Title I programs providing direct support to those involved in cotton production, and addresses head on and remedies the criticisms central to the WTO dispute with Brazil.”
The biggest obstacle to a final bill is how far apart the two parties are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps. The discussions opened just two days before food stamp recipients will see a separate, unrelated cut in their monthly benefits. On Nov. 1, a temporary benefit from the 2009 stimulus that boosted food stamp dollars was set to expire.
Lucas said at the conference meeting that he was hoping to find common ground on the issue, but House leadership, led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-VA, have insisted on higher cuts.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, sent out a statement as the meeting opened that said food stamp recipients “deserve swift action from Congress to pass a bill that provides the much-needed nutritional support for our children, our seniors, our veterans, and our communities.”
As Congress debates the cuts to the program, charities say they were preparing for the farm bill reductions and also on scheduled cuts that took place Nov. 1.
“Charities cannot fill the gap for the cuts being proposed to SNAP,” said Maura Daly of Feeding America, a network of the nation’s food banks. “We are very concerned about the impact on the charitable system.”
Daly says food banks may have to as much as double their current levels of distribution if the House cuts were enacted. The Congressional Budget Office says that if the bill were enacted, as many as 3.8 million people could lose their benefits in 2014.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that means a family of four receiving food stamps will receive $36 less a month. The cuts are expected to reduce the almost $80 billion program by almost $5 billion next year.
If passed, the farm bill cuts would be on top of that amount. The cost of the program has more than doubled since 2008 as the economy has struggled, and Republicans say it needs to be better targeted to only the neediest people. Legislation passed by the GOP-controlled House would cut food stamps by an additional $4 billion annually and change eligibility and work requirements.
The Senate farm bill would cut a tenth of that amount, with Democrats and President Barack Obama opposing major cuts.
Still, time is of the essence, as the dairy support law changes are due to go into effect at the end of the year and few work days on Capitol Hill are scheduled for members.
That left House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-MN, sounding like a student out to finish a term paper before the end of the semester—wanting to be left alone to get his work done.
“I believe that if the Conference Committee is left alone and allowed to do our work, we’ll be able to find some middle ground and finish the farm bill,” Peterson said. “I think we have a good group of conferees, and I know that everyone is committed to finishing the job.
“We’ve been working on this bill for so long I think we’re actually at a point where most of the staff work is done. It is time for members to start making the compromises necessary to put together a bill that can be defended and clearly explained to both our colleagues and the general public. It is time to put together a bill that can pass both Houses and be signed into law by the president.”
Mary Clare Jalonik 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.