The first meeting of the House and Senate conference committee on the farm bill promises to be the biggest spectacle in American agricultural and nutrition policy in decades.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who will chair the conference, would have preferred to hold the meeting this week. But the Senate, exhausted from the negotiations to end the government shutdown, is taking the week off, so the meeting is expected to take place the week of Oct. 28.
On the House floor, in radio interviews, and in encounters with reporters in the hallways of the Capitol, Lucas has sounded absolutely giddy about finally finishing a bill to replace the expired 2008 farm bill. As he told National Journal Daily last week after the vote on the continuing resolution to open the government and fund it through Jan. 15, "It's taken me years to get here."
Whether Lucas is able to retain that level of enthusiasm may depend on how that first meeting goes. Lucas and the other three members of agriculture's Big Four in Congress — House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Senate Agriculture ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss. — have decided the conference will begin with opening statements.
A House GOP aide, noting the range of conferees that Republican and Democratic leaders have chosen, said the meeting is likely to be a "venting."
Whether those opening statements emphasize cooperation and the desire to finish a bill or show continued wide differences among the conferees may signal whether the conference is likely to be successful. Stabenow said last week she is sure the conference will reach agreement, while Peterson has said he is not sure but will do everything in his power to bring the conferees together on a bill that will pass both the House and Senate.
The biggest difference between the Senate and House bills is that the Senate bill retains the 1938 and 1949 farm laws as the basis for agricultural programs while the House bill would make the 2013 commodity title permanent law. Lucas wrote the change out of fear that it will be even harder to pass a farm bill in five years, but with most farm groups and Democrats opposed to it he will have a hard time prevailing.
Beyond permanent law, there are five flash points in the bill. Here is a guide to those issues and to the role that conferees may play in them:
Nutrition: This is the big kahuna of the farm bill. The Senate bill cuts only $4 billion over 10 years from food stamps — officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — while the House bill would cut $39 billion through a series of provisions that Democrats say will lead to increased hunger. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, appointed Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla. — who has made food stamps his main issue and wrote the amendment to which the Democrats object the most — to the conference committee even though he doesn't serve on Agriculture.
Southerland recently told The Washington Post that the other House member who knows the most about food stamps is Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., but that he had not talked about the issue with him because other Republicans would object. Southerland will now have that opportunity because McGovern is also conferee. So are Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, chairman of the subcommittee in charge of nutrition, and Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, the subcommittee's ranking member.
Fudge, who serves as the personal representative of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on the conference, has criticized King for not holding hearings on the nutrition cuts, but she also has said, "I like Steve King personally" and hopes to negotiate with him. For his part, King, unlike many other House conservatives, voted for the House farm bill when the food stamp cut was only $20 billion over 10 years.
Senate conferees are expected to oppose a big cut to food stamps, but two Republican senators who have been strong supporters of food stamps over the years — Cochran and Pat Roberts of Kansas — now face tea-party primary opposition and could feel forced to support bigger cuts. Roberts, who saved the structure of the food stamp program in the 1996 welfare-reform negotiations, has called for big food-stamp cuts this year while Cochran, whose state of Mississippi has one of the highest levels of food-stamp beneficiaries, has remained a steadfast advocate for it.
Lucas has said the size of the food-stamp cut will have to come from "on high," meaning Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and President Obama.
Crop insurance: Costing about $9 billion per year, this program has become the pillar of the farm safety net and the biggest target outside food stamps for budget savings. The Senate farm bill contains a provision that would reduce crop-insurance subsidies by 15 percentage points for farmers who make more than $750,000 a year. Written by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., it was adopted on the Senate floor over the objections of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
The House bill does not call for a premium subsidy reduction, but last week the House adopted a resolution sponsored by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to agree to the Durbin-Coburn amendment. Few if any members of the conference committee are likely to support Durbin-Coburn or other cuts and payment limits on crop insurance but are under pressure to come up with budget savings.
The second crop-insurance issue is whether farmers who get crop insurance should be required to comply with government conservation standards. The Senate bill contains a conservation-compliance provision, but Lucas is adamantly opposed to it and farm groups are divided.
Commodity title: With both bills eliminating the $5 billion in annual direct payments that crop farmers have been getting whether prices are high or low, there will be a battle over the structure of a new commodity program. The centerpiece of the Senate bill is a program to pay farmers for "shallow losses" that crop insurance doesn't cover, although this year the Senate bill makes concessions to rice and peanut farmers who wanted an increase in target prices. The House bill is target-price-based, but includes a shallow-loss program. Lucas and Peterson are big advocates of target prices and the issue is whether Senate conferees from the South urge adoption of the House commodity title and how hard Northerners fight for their program.
Dairy: The Senate farm bill contains a new Dairy Security Act favored by dairy farmers and developed into legislation by Peterson. The House Agriculture Committee passed the measure, but it was amended on the House floor to take out what dairy farmers call a market stabilization program and dairy processors call supply management.
The sponsors of the House amendment — former House Agriculture Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Rep. David Scott, R-Ga. — were kept off the conference committee but Boehner so dislikes supply management he has labeled it communist and Peterson has said he worries that Boehner's enlargement of the conference committee to 17 Republicans and 12 Democrats could mean it will be difficult for the House to concede to the Senate on the issue.
Food aid: Proposals to change the U.S. food aid program — from one that purchases food in the United States and sends it overseas on American ships to one that will allow the government to buy food in countries close to the problem areas and provide more aid to Third World farmers in developing their agriculture — have pitted two coalitions of food aid groups against each other. One coalition consists of American farmers, shippers, and humanitarian groups that grow, ship, and use the food aid. The other consists of nongovernmental organizations such as Bread for the World and Oxfam America that are not as involved in food distribution and favor more foreign assistance to other countries.
The Obama administration wants the U.S. Agency for International Development to have more flexibility in running the programs. The Senate bill contains provisions to achieve some of these goals. An amendment on the House floor to make changes failed narrowly, but Boehner and Pelosi have appointed House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and ranking member Eliot Engel, D-N.Y, who favor the changes, as conferees, and their presence could change the dynamic.
Even if the opening statements sound like the conferees are so far apart they could never reach agreement, it's important to remember that within the agriculture community there is a lot of affection. After the House vote to pass the nutrition bill with the $39 billion cut, Fudge walked up to Lucas and they hugged each other.
Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive editor of The Hagstrom Report, which may be found at www.HagstromReport.com.