The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens


Lucas asks sugar growers for help pushing farm bill


COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., today urged sugar growers to build momentum for the farm bill during the congressional break.

A top Lucas also said the nutrition title is the biggest obstacle to passage, while a Senate aide said it is possible to pass the bill this year.

“It’s important that you become involved in the process,” Lucas said in a video to the American Sugar Alliance meeting here. Lucas added that the sugar growers have “excellent people” working for them in Washington, but that the farmers themselves must help convince members of Congress to take up the bill. “If you don’t do your part, it makes it harder to do our part.”

Lucas concluded that he hopes in September “to have the momentum to take the bill to the floor and deal with amendments.”

The prepared video did not permit Lucas to take questions, and he did not mention the meeting that he and House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., held with senators late Thursday to build momentum for the bill.

That meeting, sources said, was attended by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Senate Agriculture ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Richard Lugar of Indiana and John Thune of South Dakota, and Democrats Max Baucus of Montana and Kent Conrad of North Dakota.

Stabenow told The Hagstrom Report she had invited a group of senators diverse enough to show Lucas and Peterson how strongly the Senate believes in the passage of a five-year bill.

In another session, Bart Fischer, the House Agriculture Committee chief economist, told the sugar growers that even though 16 of the 26 Republicans on the committee are freshmen, Lucas had managed to beat back an amendment offered by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., that would have modified the sugar program.

Fischer said he believes the program’s no-cost provisions would continue to be an advantage in the current fiscal climate.

“It is difficult to see how it could be palatable to replace a program that operates at no cost,” Fischer said.

Of the overall farm bill, Fischer noted that there are not a lot of differences except on the commodity title and nutrition.

The Senate bill shallow-loss commodity program, he noted, does not offer price protection if prices should go down over a number of years. In a veiled reference to corn and soybeans grown in the Midwest, Fischer said the shallow-loss programs work “for only a couple of commodities in one part of the country.”

He said he is afraid that if only the shallow-loss program is instituted, especially with the adjusted gross income and payment limit provisions in the Senate bill, many growers would opt out of participation in Title I of the bill.

He said there is a lot of overlap between shallow-loss and crop insurance, which could place crop insurance “in a bit of jeopardy.”

If commodity growers opt out of Title I, that would put dairy and sugar programs in a vulnerable position the next time the farm bill comes up for consideration.

Lucas, he said, wants to avoid putting farmers back in the situation they faced in the late 1990s, when prices went down and there was no target-price program to protect them. Congress today “does not have much appetite” for making ad hoc disaster payments.”

What is holding up the farm bill in the House, however, is not differences over the commodity title, but the controversies over whether or not to cut the nutrition title, and by how much, Fischer said.

If the Senate had kept the same provisions in the nutrition title that were in the bill that the congressional farm leaders sent to the supercommittee on deficit reduction last December, it would have cut $8 billion from nutrition over 10 years, Fischer added. The Senate instead cut food stamps by only $4.5 billion.

The $16 billion cut in the House bill, Fischer noted, would cut food stamps by only 2 percent over 10 years, he noted.

Fischer also said there is a “timing issue” with the farm bill because it expires on September 30. Fischer said he is not sure there will be time to move the bill in September, but concluded that Lucas is committed to moving a farm bill this year and to having it in place by the end of the year.
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Despite Fischer’s positive comments on the sugar program, Jim Miller, the senior policy adviser to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., warned the growers “don’t think your trials in terms of the sugar program are over. I always worry about the House.”

Miller, a former Agriculture undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, said he considers himself an optimist, but is aware of how few legislative days are available for the farm bill.

“I think it is possible to get it done this year,” he said. “I don’t know how to do it. But if people truly want to get this done, we can do it.”

Miller said the Senate will be in session for only eight legislative days in September, and that the October schedule has not been decided.

He said that the agreement on a six-month continuing resolution instead of individual appropriations bills may ease the legislative schedule somewhat, but if the bill is held up until the lame-duck session it will become mixed into the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and how to handle sequestration.

Miller said Conrad and other senators want to figure out a way to get this done, and that the senator wants the final bill to include funding for the energy title. The House bill reauthorizes the energy programs, but contains no mandatory spending on them.

Miller also said that writing the bill in 2013 won’t be any easier in policy or budgetary terms.

Asked by ASA Chairman Luther Markwart how Mitt Romney, if elected, would handle the sugar program, Miller said he believed that he would enforce the law, “which is why we need to get that bill written.”

Markwart told Fischer that he could take a message to Lucas that the sugar growers stand ready “to get a farm bill passed with the sugar provisions as they are.”