"Can we do it? Can we still compromise?" a prominent agricultural lobbyist who has worked on several farm bills asked last week as the House and Senate conference committee on the next farm bill was about to meet for the first time.
It was a good question because the bill's overlong development period has given all the interests so many opportunities to state their positions that they seem more dug in than in past bill-writing efforts. But at the conference last week there were signals that the conferees think the time to act has come.
The 41 conferees did use the last and possibly only public opportunity to make the case for their views. But almost all the members abided by the directive from the conference leader, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., to keep their remarks to three minutes. And even the most ideological of them on the right and left were polite and stressed that they were there to compromise and finish a bill.
It's unclear how quickly the conferees will proceed to the big issues because the House has left town until Nov. 12, the day after Veterans Day. There has been talk of a meeting on the bill between President Obama and the four conference committee principals — Lucas, House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Senate Agriculture ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss. Peterson said he has mixed feelings about such a meeting because support from Obama might cause some House members to oppose the bill.
But Peterson noted that the "one place" on which Obama could be "helpful" would be resolving the size of the cut to food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Lucas has said that it is likely to be the last item settled and that Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will have to make the call on that. The official White House position on food stamps is to make no cuts, while the Senate-passed farm bill would cut the program by $4 billion over 10 years and the House-passed bill would cut it by $39 billion over the same period.
The big question now is whether the food industry will weigh in on the food-stamp cut. So far Wal-Mart and other big chains where food-stamp beneficiaries spend most of their money — about $80 billion last year — have remained silent but comments by investment analysts that the food-stamp cut may affect their bottom lines and the general economy might lead them to act.
So far antihunger lobbyists and conservative activists have stuck so strongly to their positions that conferees would have no reason to turn to them for advice. On Friday, when the Recovery Act increase in benefits expired, causing benefits to go down by $36 per month for a family of four, the Food Research Action Center said, "House and Senate farm bill conferees must put politics behind them and produce a bill that does not further hurt low-income people struggling to eat, but rather moves us toward ending hunger in our nation of plenty." Heritage Action and other conservative groups have said the food-stamp cut should be even bigger than the $39 billion in the House bill.
Meanwhile, on farm policy, the conferees seem to have turned from partisanship to the regionalism that has dominated farm bills in the past. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said he would defend his provision that would make it illegal for a state to ban food from another state produced under conditions that the receiving state found unacceptable. King acknowledged he wrote the amendment because California passed a law to forbid the sale of eggs produced by hens in cages smaller than those allowed in California. King said the California law would cost Iowa egg producers money to comply. But Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said that the King amendment is "not only anti-California, but if you think about it, it sets up a one-size-fits-all policy to be determined in Washington."
There will also be a bitter regional battle over the commodity title that seems to be about both ideology and how the program would affect acreage for individual crops. The growers of soybeans, corn, pulse crops, and oilseeds favor the Senate version of the bill based on payments to cover "shallow losses" not covered by crop insurance, while rice and peanut growers favor the House bill based on higher target prices. Wheat growers have stayed out of that battle, but they maintain that because most wheat is grown in large Western counties, subsidies need to be triggered by losses on individual farms rather than by county averages.
At the conference meeting, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who chaired the House Agriculture Committee in 1996 when the Freedom to Farm Act ended the government's ability to control production through subsidy payments, said, "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."
But Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, who chairs the House subcommittee in charge of commodities, said there has been "a lot of misinformation" that higher target prices and making payments on current planted acres rather than a farmer's planting history would lead farmers to plant to get government payments rather than to get income from the market.
"Why are both chambers taking this approach?" Conaway asked. "Because we are tired of defending charges that we are paying farmers on crops they do not grow or paying people who are not even farming."
The dairy program is still a flash point. Peterson told reporters that he now has the votes to prevail on the dairy policy that he and dairy farmers prefer even though he was unable to stop the House from passing a floor amendment that eliminated provisions that Boehner called supply management. "I might have to bulldoze that one. I have the votes," Peterson said, but dairy processors continue lobbying against it.
The biggest surprise of the conference may have been Lucas's announcement that he supports changes to the law requiring country-of-origin labeling for red meat. The World Trade Organization ruled that the implementation of the law that emanated from the 2002 and 2008 farm bills violated its rules. The Obama administration has rewritten its implementation plan and resubmitted it to the WTO but agribusiness groups led by the meat industry oppose the rewrite and have asked the conferees to somehow reduce its impact and avoid trade retaliation from Canada and Mexico.
Lucas said at the conference meeting that he hopes the conference can "prevent the imposition of tariffs on a wide array of products important to many states" but that sets up a battle with senators from Western states who favor it.
The lobbyists should know how to compromise. Most of them have worked on farm bills longer than many of the conferees who are making conciliatory gestures. It is time for the conferees to stop listening to the lobbyists and finish the bill.
Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive editor of The Hagstrom Report, which may be found at www.HagstromReport.com.