As the House comes back into session Monday, the farm bill looks like it may be in more trouble than it really is.
The week before Thanksgiving the four principal negotiators — House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn.; and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss. — failed to meet their own self-imposed deadline of reaching a framework for a conference report before taking a break for the holidays.
But they did meet three times last week and have talked on the phone several times since. The Senate is not in session this week, but all conferees have been told they may be summoned to Washington for an open conference meeting on the bill on Wednesday. A Cochran spokesman said that whether the meeting takes place this week or not, "The principals continue to talk and are having substantive discussions. They all hope to come up with a plan that is workable for all parts of the country."
The National Corn Growers Association, the American Soybean Association, and the U.S. Canola Association wrote congressional farm leaders last week that if they do not reach agreement on a commodity title proposal that avoids linking payments to current-year planted acres, the groups would oppose the farm bill and instead support an extension of the 2008 farm bill, even if it means a reduction in direct payments.
But a soybean official said the groups still prefer a new bill, and other farm groups reacted negatively to the letter.
"Unhelpful," National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said. The corn, soy, and canola growers deserve credit for offering a compromise because "it's something no other groups have done to move the process along," said American Farm Bureau Federation lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher. But Thatcher added that she doesn't think there is an option for a two-year extension of the farm bill — even with a small cut in direct payments.
In addition to opposition from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has already said the Senate will not pass an extension, "we would have 70-plus tea-party Republicans that couldn't support that move because they wouldn't get any cuts in food stamps under an extension," Thatcher noted.
One congressional aide working on the bill reacted in stronger terms. Even though the principal negotiators didn't get the framework, "it's not like everyone is angry with each other and not talking anymore. Who wants to talk about a two-year extension when we are this close to getting a farm bill done? It beats anything I've ever seen."
Beyond the lack of enthusiasm for an extension, it's also important to remember how much has been accomplished. Although debates continue over trimming a conservation-compliance proposal and crop-insurance premium subsidies for big farmers, there is basic agreement on the crop-insurance program as the centerpiece of the farm program.
The farm program battle is over the commodity title, which is budgeted to cost less than half what the crop-insurance program would cost. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Senate version of crop insurance would cost $89 billion over 10 years and the House version would cost $93 billion. The Senate commodity title would cost only $41 billion and the House version would cost $40 billion.
Commodity groups argue, of course, that the CBO figures are only estimates and that, depending on how they are written, the policies will determine whether the U.S. farm program will trigger a World Trade Organization challenge and whether it will provide a secure safety if prices are low for a prolonged period. But this is basically a battle between the North and the South that has been going on since the modern farm program was set up in the 1930s and benefits had to be divided up. Congress has reached compromises on these issues and surely must again. Now that the commodity title has been turned into a backup to crop insurance, it should not delay the entire bill.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., told the North Dakota Farmers Union convention in Minot on Nov. 23, "The elements are there. It comes down to getting people to agree."
Hoeven, a conferee on the bill who often plays the role of Great Plains intermediary between the Corn Belt and the South, said there are half a dozen commodity title proposals to deal with the conflicts over whether payments should be made on farmers' historic base acreage or planted acreage, and that farmers may end up with a choice on that issue.
On the cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, Hoeven, like other policymakers, said it should be based on policy rather than numbers. But he said he can see a compromise coming. States should have to increase the payments they make under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to qualify SNAP participants for higher benefits, and there should be requirements that food-stamp participants work, get training, or be involved in community service, although states should still be able to exempt people who have to care for dependents. But he said that if Congress adopts those policies and takes into consideration the cut of more than $11 billion over three years that went into effect when the Recovery Act boost expired Nov. 1, the amount would be equal to the $20 billion cut over 10 years that was the goal when the House Agriculture Committee passed the bill.
The principal negotiators and the Agriculture Department have warned that if a new bill is not signed by Dec. 31, the USDA will have to start using the 1949 dairy program and that would result in higher milk prices. But in an interview, Hoeven acknowledged that many legislators consider Jan. 15, the date when the current continuing resolution funding the government runs out, to be the real deadline for a budget deal, for an appropriations bill for the rest of fiscal 2014, and for the farm bill. But he said he worries that leaving the farm bill till January could mean that it gets too mixed up with other legislation. He also noted that as the year moves along, the bill would be subject to rescoring, which could complicate its completion.
But perhaps the strongest pressure for an extension may come from farmers who are facing lower commodity prices and want a multiyear safety net in place.
Hoeven's voice rose as he told the Farmers Union members, "We did not get a farm bill last year. We ended up with an extension. We do not want to do that again."
Hoeven seemed shocked at the level of his own voice and tried to tell the audience that he makes that point in politer terms in Washington, but he was drowned out by applause from more than 700 farmers and their families.
Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive director of The Hagstrom Report, at www.HagstromReport.com.