House and Senate farm bill conferees used the first and possibly only public meeting Wednesday to once again articulate their differences on agriculture and nutrition policy, but the tone was conciliatory and congressional farm leaders made plans to continue negotiations next week even though the House is out of session.
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., all expressed hope that the conference committee will be able to keep control of the farm bill and finish it this year.
"We face daunting challenges, we are working in a complicated environment, we have to draft a very technical bill," Lucas said, but he added that the committee has the responsibility "to give people back home the tools to withstand the forces of nature and the markets" and to assist in "the struggle" that many Americans face as food consumers.
Stabenow noted that the conference provides "an unprecedented opportunity to show how to govern," and many of the other 40 members of the conference expressed the same view during a two-hour-plus session at which all the conferees had an opportunity to make opening statements.
There have been concerns that the farm bill, which has been pending for two years, might be taken over by the larger budget negotiations, but Stabenow, who is also serving on that conference committee, said, "The Budget Committee will not be writing the farm bill. We will write, we will edit, we will offer responsible cuts."
Lucas said budget negotiators are welcome to use the farm-bill savings in their calculations but added, "You can't have our money if you don't take our policy."
Members repeated their well-documented views on farm policy, but one new piece of information emerged when Stabenow noted that on Friday the expiration of special Recovery Act food-stamp benefits will result in savings that will total $11 billion over the next three years.
Stabenow said the $11 billion cut could be used to help forge a compromise on the funding level for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name for food stamps. The Senate's farm bill would reduce SNAP spending by $4 billion over 10 years while the House bill would cut food stamps by $39 billion over the same period.
"That $11 billion plus the $4 billion in cuts in the Senate bill mean that accepting the Senate nutrition title would result in a total of $15 billion in cuts in nutrition," Stabenow said. She added that "the good news" is that the Congressional Budget Office has projected that "over 14 million people will no longer need temporary food help over the next few years because the economy is improving and they will be able to go back to work."
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who chairs the House Agriculture subcommittee in charge of nutrition, said he believes waste, fraud, and abuse should be eliminated in food stamps, but that he was intrigued by the information that Stabenow provided.
Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla. — who wrote the food-stamp work requirement amendment that House Republicans adopted on the floor even though it offended Democrats, and was the House Republican leadership's appointee to the conference — noted that he was the only Floridian on the conference committee and spent most of his time talking about the needs of Florida farmers. Southerland noted, however, that he considered his amendment "commonsense" reform.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus who was appointed to the conference by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to defend food stamps, said she wants to convince the conference to "accept the link between farming and feeding." Fudge also said she is as concerned about the size of the cut for food stamps in the House proposal as she is about the fact that the bill would authorize nutrition programs for only three years while farm programs are authorized for five. But Fudge also said she looks forward to a "collaborative conclusion."
Cochran, who once served in the House, said he was impressed by "how very well behaved" the House members were and said they spoke on behalf of farmers and people in need "in a very meaningful way."