Congress, primed on Syria, readies for farm bill fight
By Larry Dreiling
The 113th Congress has resumed its business in Washington following an August “work session.”
Besides debating President Barack Obama’s request for a decision for a military strike against Syria, there’s plenty to look forward to, including debates over government spending, raising the debt limit, immigration reform and a probable Senate confirmation battle over the president’s nominee to be chairman of the Federal Reserve System.
Still, the battle that looms largest for rural America is the debate on a farm bill.
Proponents were taking to the streets of Washington on Sept. 9, as Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow told attendees at a farm bill rally outside the Capitol that she won’t back another short-term extension of farm programs.
Stabenow wants House Republican leaders to agree to take the farm bill to conference, even without an answer on what the House will do about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.
“The leadership needs to trust and support (the House Agriculture Committee) and just simply go to conference, appoint conferees, quit playing politics with food assistance,” the Michigan Democrat said.
“We’ve got 21 days left before Sept. 30. We will not see an extension passed, and if we did, we’d be leaving livestock producers in a lurch, and a whole lot of other people in a lurch,” Stabenow said, referring to the expiration date for the current farm extension. “It makes no sense. I don’t support doing it.”
Stabenow also complained that some want to take the money saved by eliminating direct payments without doing a full overhaul of farm programs.
She expanded on that point when speaking with reporters after the event.
“What that does is make it more difficult for us to have a strong conservation title, to strengthen crop insurance, to address local food systems, energy title,” Stabenow was quoted in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, noting that none of the savings generated in the budget from eliminating direct payments are used elsewhere in the broader five-year bill.
The National Farmers Union hosted the farm bill rally outside the Russell Senate Office Building, with a large number of people associated with the group in attendance, who are in Washington to lobby for passage of the five-year farm bill.
Meanwhile, back in the states, members held their last town halls and group meetings in High Plains states. Among them, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-OK, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
“Syria has absorbed all of the political oxygen in the nation’s Capitol,” said in an exclusive interview with the Rural Oklahoma Network. “I really expected this week that we would be taking up the Nutrition, a free standing item. That now has been pushed back simply because for the rest of this week and I am not sure how many days after that- Syria is a front burner issue.”
Lucas told RON that House conferees will not be appointed by leadership until the fate of the now Nutrition title is known. Lucas said was hoping that would be before the end of September, but it is apparent that may not happen until some time in early October.
“I know they are focused on Syria but we need to get the farm bill done,” Lucas said.
As for the Commodity title, Lucas said a farm bill that will work for all commodities across the country will be the result of a conference that he will apparently chair and that anything less is not worth bringing forward.
“I will be the conference chairman,” Lucas said. “If we don’t have a comprehensive farm bill we can all be a part of that has a safety net that will work for everybody, then there is no need to have a farm bill.”
Meanwhile, to the north in Kansas, that state’s senior senator, Pat Roberts, said that the food stamp program is the “redline” for Democrats in the passage of the farm bill—and that his is crop insurance.
The Republican senator said that the Senate would not pass a farm bill without what it sees as an “appropriate” SNAP funding.
While Democrats have opposed any cuts to the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program designed to give people temporary food assistance when their income falls beneath a certain level, Republicans have proposed many different approaches to trimming it. The program has more than doubled in cost in the last five years as the economy faltered and now serves around 1 in 7 Americans.
“The farm bill is a perfect storm,” Roberts told the Kansas Farm Bureau at the annual State Fair Agricultural Leadership Breakfast.
The Senate bill would cut SNAP by about $400 million a year, or half a percent, and Senate Democrats have been reluctant to cut more. The House bill stripped food stamps from the scaled-down bill it passed, and GOP leaders said they would deal with that issue in a separate bill.
During a farm forum later at the state fair, Roberts told the crowd that if the farm and food assistance programs were kept separate, conservative rural lawmakers would have less control over the food stamp program.
“As long as we have the dog-gone thing, at least we have some control,” Roberts said.
The state’s junior senator—Jerry Moran—said, like Roberts, his emphasis is on the crop insurance program.
Roberts said there would be no farm bill until the House deals with the food assistance program. He is part of the conference committee now trying to hammer out differences between the farm bill versions passed by the two chambers.
Despite the rhetoric at the state fair about the “redline” on crop insurance, both the Senate and House versions of the farm bill keep the crop insurance.
Moran says the country’s focus on Syria is delaying the farm bill debate. He said he wants to avoid another extension.
But Roberts said the conferees can meet despite the Syria debate and said he is optimistic something will be worked out on a farm bill.
Congress will have to finish a farm bill before the end of the year if lawmakers want to avert the threat of milk prices doubling for consumers. While most of the current farm law expires at the end of September, its effects won’t be felt until the end of the year when dairy supports expire. Without the supports, milk prices are expected to rise.
The House version also included one new provision that repeals laws from the 1930s and 1940s that kick in when current farm law expires. Farm-state lawmakers have kept those laws on the books so there would be incentive to pass new farm bills, but the threat of outdated policies kicking in has been a headache for farmers who worry they can’t depend on Congress to create new laws or extend more recent versions of the law.
Meanwhile, speaking on a conference call to reporters Sept. 10, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urged Congress to speed completion of the farm bill.
“We’ve waited too long. The uncertainty creates a degree of concern,” said Vilsack, while announcing several Conservation Innovation Grants.
“It matters about conservation programs being adequately financed…on top of disaster assistance, solving the Brazilian cotton issue, about providing certainty with the safety net,” Vilsack said.
“The Congress should act quickly to resolve the difference between the various bills, get a conference committee started, get House members appointed and in the room, and get this job done.”
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.