Ready to Rumble Over the Farm Bill

House and Senate conferees will try to reconcile scores of ag issues starting next week.

Farmer Jay Sneller stands in the remnants of his drought-ravaged corn field as a thunderstorm arrives, too late to save his crop, on August 22, 2012 near Wiley, on the plains of eastern Colorado. 
National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
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Jerry Hagstrom
Oct. 20, 2013, 10:07 a.m.

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.

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