O’Conner, Thatcher: Next farm bill may be more difficult
April 23, 2014 | 06:14 PM
Two key farm bill lobbyists said today that the next bill may be more difficult to develop and pass, and urged advocates of all types to begin thinking about how to work together to pass another bill.
During a panel discussion at the Consumer Federation of America National Food Policy Conference, Bill O’Conner, a former House Agriculture Committee staff director and USDA official, noted that the relationship between the farm titles and the nutrition title “have changed, and not just in one direction.”
O’Conner, now at the law firm of McLeod, Watkinson and Miller, said that in 1985 the agriculture community recognized that it needed anti-hunger advocates to collect the urban and suburban votes needed to pass the farm bill, and that anti-hunger advocates “felt they had hitched a ride on the farm bill” that got them conservative votes for their programs.
By the 1990s, O’Conner said, he began to believe that the food programs “didn’t need the farm bill as much as when I got there.”
But with the growth of the food stamp program in 2008 and the conservative takeover of the House in 2010, he said, it’s become harder for the farm programs to carry the food programs and harder for the food programs to garner votes for the farm programs.
In 2012, O’Conner noted, the House Republican leadership wouldn’t bring the bill to the House floor because there was “no way” they would force Republicans to vote for a bill that would spend $1 trillion over 10 years, with $800 million of that going to food stamps.
In 2013, after the bill was defeated on the House floor and split in two, Republican leaders finally decided they had to put it back together again and pass it because “so many Republicans come from rural districts. They did not want to send those guys home without a farm bill for a second election.”
But O’Conner warned that there are still “grudges and bad feelings” because the $40 billion cut in food stamps over 10 years that passed the House at one point was reduced to a $8.6 billion cut, and now some governors have increased their Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program payments to $20 per year per household to maintain food stamp benefit levels. Even if unemployment goes down to 5 percent or less, there will still be proposals to cut food stamps because it is now being discussed as welfare reform.
“The food community would be well served if a lot of Republicans retired,” O’Conner said.
Hearings on food stamps, now formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, will be productive only if there is bipartisan agreement on an approach and independent agencies such as the Government Accountability Office are asked to develop a database, he said.
O’Conner noted that rural districts have become more conservative. Years ago, he said, it would have been unthinkable for a rural member of the House to vote against a farm bill unless he did not consider the bill generous enough.
But this year several House members from rural districts voted against it, including Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, who represents one of the top agricultural districts in the country.
If Congress doesn’t change, O’Conner said, the Senate will be prepared to pass a farm bill in 2018 but the House may not be.
“There may be reasons to question whether [the farm bill] will be done the same way in the future,” and advocates who want another bill should give “serious thought” to thinking that through.
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Mary Kay Thatcher
Mary Kay Thatcher, the senior director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, noted that Congress may not pass anything else as big as the farm bill in 2014 unless it passes the Water Resources Development Act.
“We will have another farm bill,” Thatcher said. It will be difficult, she said, perhaps “incredibly difficult,” but she reminded the attendees that “every” farm bill has been difficult.
A lot of the people talking about the 2014 farm bill being the last one are thinking that if they say that often enough there won’t be another, she said.
While food stamps became the most contentious issue in the farm bill, Thatcher said that divisions among farm groups and the farmers’ apathy about the farm bill in 2012 and 2013 were also responsible for how long it took to pass it.
“I think they will be less apathetic the next time,” she said.
Farm Bureau remains committed to keeping the farm program and nutrition programs in one bill, Thatcher said.
“My organization doesn’t think that if we split the two we can ever get another farm bill,” Thatcher said.
And even though Farm Bureau opposed linking conservation compliance to crop insurance, which conservation groups supported, Thatcher said that Farm Bureau is now working with those groups to achieve proper implementation of that provision.
The lack of coalition-building between farm groups and nutrition groups such as the Food Research and Action Center and Feeding America occurred because money had to be cut. But she said the nutrition groups signaled they would like to find projects on which to work with the farm groups in the future.
Farm groups have to face the fact that the farm bill depends on centrist members for passage and that many of those members are retiring.
Farm Bureau’s “go-to guys are getting older and retiring and some are going to be defeated. We are going to have to reach out to people we haven’t counted on before,” she said.
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Scott Lilly of the Center for American Progress noted that the farm bill is not the only piece of legislation to face difficulty. Congress’s slowness in raising the debt ceiling despite support from the business community was “the first sign we saw of coalitions falling apart” and the difficulties in passing defense and transportation bills are other signals.
Chuck Abbott, a former Reuters reporter now with the Food Environment and Reporting Network, noted that there will be two election cycles before the next farm bill comes up in 2018.
It would be “wise to wait” before reaching conclusions on what it will take to pass the next farm bill, Abbott said, but he also noted that, with population losses in many rural counties and the growth of minorities in others, “the demographics of rural America are changing.”