Congressional ag leaders present united effort to get farm bill passed in 2012
April 17, 2012 | 07:30 PM
By JERRY HAGSTROM
As the House Agriculture Committee approaches a potentially divisive markup on farm program reconciliation on Wednesday and the Senate Agriculture Committee plans a markup on a new farm bill beginning a week later, the four leaders of the committees today presented a united front that they will work together to pass a new farm bill this year.
In separate meetings with members of the North American Agricultural Journalists, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Senate Agriculture ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., all stressed that they want to get a bill done this year.
Lucas and Peterson said they want to avoid conflict over the reconciliation process affecting the farm bill, while Stabenow and Lucas announced they will produce a joint mark to be presented to the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Roberts and Stabenow also signaled that they are willing to accommodate senators from both the South and the Northern Plains, who have been less enthusiastic about the originally proposed commodity program.
Lucas said that some of the questions about spending in the bill cannot be answered until conference. Asked about energy programs and disaster programs, Lucas said, “Until the final conference report is signed, it is not prudent to suggest what things will go away. I represent a district in the southwest. We went through a tremendous drought. I am particularly sensitive to those [disaster] programs. “
Reconciliation markup and food stamps
Lucas said he would “continue the process of writing the farm bill” Wednesday by going through what he called “an exercise” to demonstrate that the committee can save substantial amounts of money.
Lucas said the committee would comply with a directive from the House-passed budget bill to save about $33 billion, but he stressed that he does not expect the Senate to take up the reconciliation process. Lucas did not say whether — as expected — the Republicans on the committee will insist on taking all those savings out of food stamps, but he said the bill Wednesday “is not the farm bill. The regular farm bill will entail savings in all areas of the farm bill.”
Peterson said that he wants to get through the markup Wednesday “with a minimum amount of damage." Noting that he and Lucas had each had meetings with their members, he said “there are not going to be any amendments, there will be a bunch of speeches, then there will be a vote.”
Some Republicans, Peterson said, will complain that the food stamp cut is not big enough and some Democrats will say food stamps should not be cut.
“I talked to my members last night,” Peterson said. “Everyone agreed this is not real, we should not give it any credibility.”
The Republican-led budget process, Peterson said, “is all about the defense cuts. They had to get rid of the defense cuts in the first year of sequestration to get 70 percent in the Republican caucus to vote for the budget.”
The reconciliation process, Peterson said, “is not going any place, it is not worth fighting about.”
But House Agriculture Democrats will oppose a big cut in food stamps — formally known as the supplemental nutrition assistance program or SNAP — when the farm bill comes up.
“That is a legitimate fight, it is shooting with real bullets,” Peterson said.
Stabenow also told the journalists that her chairman’s mark will include a provision that will prevent the states from making small payments for low-income heating and energy assistance to SNAP beneficiaries that allows them to qualify for higher food stamp benefits.
“We are looking at what has been a low error rate and want to make even lower,” Stabenow said. “We will focus on fraud and abuse. That provision on LIHEAP needs to be modified.”
“SNAP is in many ways like crop insurance,” Stabenow said. “It goes up and down based on need. Because of the horrendous economy, we have seen food assistance go up. People are mortified they need help. The focus is to make sure not a dollar goes where it should not.”
The Food Research and Action Center and other anti-hunger groups oppose the cut and favor extending higher level benefits included in the Recovery Act beyond their current expiration in 2012.
Stabenow said she and Roberts “are working extremely well together. We are going to have a joint mark for the committee.”
But she added that she does expect amendments when the markup begins in Wednesday. She would not predict how long it will take, but noted that a recent farm bill markup took a day and a half.
Stabenow said there “a tremendous amount of consensus on the majority of the bill. Conservation has very broad support. People always say we should cut down on paper work, and this time it is happening.”
Asked whether she agrees with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s view that the bill should be called the “food, farm and jobs bill,” Stabenow said that is “a great name,”although she joked that she is tempted to call it “Debbie and Pat’s Great Adventure.”
Lucas said, however, that “It is important that you still have ‘farm’ in the farm bill. If we spend 80 percent on nutrition, then you are squeezing anything else. I want to make sure everyone meets their nutrition needs and we have sound conservation programs, but a farm bill should still have farm in it.”
Stabenow also said she is “confident” that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will find floor time for the bill even though Reid “has a lot of things to juggle.”
Roberts said the Senate Agriculture committee “will get the bill done next week” and that he hopes that a strong majority of the committee will vote for it.
“There will be substantial reforms in the bill as we move from direct payment system to some thing that is more risk based,” Stabenow said.
“We have different needs and different regions of the country. Southerners have different challenges than friends on the Northern Plains than others in the middle. Those are things we are working through right now.”
All four leaders acknowledged that they believe the new bill may be more trade-distorting that the previous bill.
“Clearly direct payments are the least market distorting, and from the economic perspective, the least trade distorting, but unfortunately we live in an environment where between colleagues and in the national media they have taken on the direct payments as the ultimate terrible of all terrible,” Lucas said.
“If we have to step away from the old direct payments, whatever else we adopt I fear perhaps unintentionally will have that effect. “
On the question of whether the GSM 102 program would be continued, Lucas said, “We are looking at everything. But people I deal with, including media, don’t seem to care that much about trade implications. That is unfortunate.”
As chairman, he added, he does not decide the way the committee or the House goes, but attempts to steer them.
All four principals said they are concerned about violating World Trade Organization standards, particularly on the proposed cotton program. But Stabenow also said, “We’ve got to be fair to the cotton growers.”
All four principals also defended crop insurance and said they would try to extend it other crops rather than cut it.
Some critics have said they are worried that raising the prices that target payments may cause farmers to change planting decisions, but Lucas said the issue of raising target prices goes to the heart of whether the farm bill is national in scope, because rice and peanut farmers must have a program that works for them.
Peterson said he is in favor of raising target prices. Roberts has criticized the idea, saying he does not want states to become monocultures as they were before the Freedom to Farm program was started in 1996, but he signaled he is now more flexible on the issue.
Stabenow said she has “not drawn a firm line in the sand” on target prices. “We are trying to look at what works.”
Asked about fears that a higher wheat target price might mean less barley production, Peterson said he favors raising the barley target price higher than proposed. He said the United States has lost barley production because the safety net is inadequate.
Quaker Oats complained about a loss of oats production, he said. But when he proposed raising the target price, executives said they didn’t want to pay more for oats, Peterson said, adding that the company must now buy oats from Canada.
The four leaders also seemed to be satisfied with the proposed dairy program, even though dairy processors are not.
“Keep in mind the dairy folks have had the toughest 10 years, compared to livestock, compared to grain,” Lucas said. “It is easy to understand why they want to do something different.”
Peterson said that the International Dairy Foods Association is getting 80 percent of what it wants in the bill, and that that “of you get 80 percent of what you want you should declare victory.”
On energy programs, Stabenow said there might be a small amount of mandatory spending, but that most of those programs would be authorized subject to appropriations.
In a discussion of the Senate and House schedules, Roberts had the last word. Asked whether he wished he could be at a House Agriculture Committee hearing Friday in his old district in Dodge City, Kan., Roberts said, “We’ll be here writing a farm bill, while they’ll be there having a hearing.”