Farm Bill Is Closer Than Many Think

The desire to avoid an extension of current law should drive lawmakers toward a compromise.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 16: Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) answers questions as he arrives for a meeting of Senate Republicans on a solution for the pending budget and debt limit impasse at the U.S. Capitol October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. The U.S. government shutdown is in its sixteenth day as the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives remain gridlocked on funding the federal government and the extending the nation's debt limit.
National Journal
Dec. 1, 2013, 6:47 a.m.

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.Hag­strom­Re­

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