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Vilsack, Stabenow, Lucas, Peterson all comment on farm bill

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said today there is no reason Congress cannot finish the farm bill before the end of the year, while House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., took a more cautious position and House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., signaled that he might support an extension if it includes a new dairy program.

Vilsack, Stabenow and Lucas all gave their views in separate speeches at the Farm Journal Forum conference in Washington, while Peterson gave an interview to Politico.

Tom Vilsack

Tom Vilsack
Vilsack said that there are no policy reasons that the farm bill has not been passed, and said the fact that the House has not taken it up is a signal of declining political power in rural America.

Noting that he had invited the chairmen and ranking members to his office last week when they had not met for some time, Vilsack said he told the four at that meeting that there was a possibility the farm bill could be included in the deficit reduction and tax bill, but urged them to work on the differences between the Senate-passed bill and the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill because they could not ask the rest of Congress to wait for them to work out their differences.

At that meeting, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said that he would compromise with the southerners on their differences over the commodity title in the bill.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
Stabenow said she was opposed to an extension, which an aide said was a step up from her previous statements that an extension would be bad legislation.

“We are not talking about an extension, we are not going to do an extension,” Stabenow said. “Farmers in America need a five-year farm bill. We know how to do this and we know that cuts to agriculture are on the table whether we are in the room or not.”

She added, “We are at a point right now where we are in the room working together on the final pieces of difference between the House and the Senate, and I am very encouraged by the conversations.”

Stabenow said later that while the Senate-passed farm bill did not include a target price-based option in the commodity title, she realizes that there has to be a “countercyclical” program to satisfy growers in some parts of the country.

Stabenow said she would “oppose any extension of this farm program” because “there are 37 expiring programs that would have to be funded. All 37 I care deeply about.”

An extension, she noted, would not include a dairy program or disaster relief for Michigan cherry growers, who had no crop this year.

“I am proud of the disaster relief in our bill,” she added.

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla.

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla.
Lucas said that for President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to reach “a grand agreement” on changes to the tax code and entitlements is “a really daunting task,” but that if they do reach an agreement and they want to include the farm bill “it can be done.”

But he also said he could foresee an agreement under which authorizing committees would get instructions for specific numbers to be implemented next year with the threat that if the authorizing committees did not make the cuts, the budget committees would step in and make the cuts.

Lucas said that there would not be “a committee chairman alive” who would leave the job up to the budget committees.

He said farm groups “are fired up about the concept of no extension,” and added, “I’d like to have all my Christmas presents on Christmas morning too, but the magnitude of changes we’re talking about is no simple legislative achievement.”

Lucas also signaled that farm groups still need to come together.

In an apparent reference to the differences between corn and soybean groups that prefer the Senate-passed revenue program that would pay farmers for losses that crop insurance does not cover, and the rice and peanut groups that prefer the target price option in the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill, Lucas asked, “Will my ag community friends be able to get on the same page if we are asked to come together in a way to achieve a set amount of savings this fall or early winter?”

He also said a target price-based option must be in the farm bill for him to support it.

Lucas said that even if Congress finishes the farm bill before the end of the year, it might be difficult for the Agriculture Department to implement the bill in time for the next crop year and that there might be a need for a “transition” program.

Talking to reporters, Lucas also signaled that he might favor continuing the direct payments program for one more year. But Stabenow and Vilsack both threw cold water on that idea.

Lucas spoke positively about the direct payments that crop farmers have been getting whether prices are high or low, noting that they are World Trade Organization-compliant.

But Stabenow said, “I think the public has spoken strongly,” adding that Obama, Boehner and the Senate have all made statements criticizing them.

“We should not continue direct payments,” she said.

Vilsack said he has assured Lucas that he and the staff at USDA “will do everything we can ... move heaven and earth to do our job in a timely fashion."

On the direct payments, he added, “It’s fair to say there’s going to be a different structure and it’s not going to be direct payments.”

Lucas, Stabenow and Vilsack all took different positions on changes to food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.

Lucas said he believes that the food stamp program can be cut dramatically and “and not take one calorie off of one needy person’s plate” if beneficiaries are not automatically qualified, a system known as categorical eligibility.

Stabenow said she would accept the idea of cutting more than the $4.5 billion from food stamps over 10 years that is in the Senate-passed bill by increasing efforts for efficiency and fighting fraud and abuse. But she said she would not accept an end to categorical eligibility.

Vilsack said also he wants to make food stamps as efficient as possible, but that he would not discuss negotiating points such as categorical eligibility. The White House official position is that there should be no cuts to food stamps.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
Meanwhile, Peterson, who has said he would organize opposition to an extension, told Politico that if an extension bill contains the milk stabilization program that he has written, he would consider supporting it.

“I could maybe live with that, cause the dairy thing is the big issue for me,” Peterson told Politico.

On dairy, Lucas said today, “Something has to be done. I will simply say I voted for Mr. Peterson’s language in the bill and I voted to defend it, so I’m on record.”

The National Milk Producers Federation vigorously favors the dairy stabilization program, while the International Dairy Foods Association bitterly opposes it.