Farm Bill Conference Begins With Members Determined to ‘Show How to Govern’

WASHINGTON - JUNE 22: Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) participates in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on June 22, 2010 in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony on policies that would reduce oil consumption through the promotion of accelerated deployment of electric-drive vehicles. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
Oct. 30, 2013, 3:53 p.m.

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.”

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