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Perspective: What's Next for Senate Farm Bill?

April 25, 2012
By: Jim Wiesemeyer, Pro Farmer Washington Consultant

The current farm bill writing fracas in the Senate is still another example of how it has become so difficult to get any type of omnibus measure going - and in this case, even at the committee level. Can you imagine the twists and turns once the measure gets to the full Senate chamber?

And then there are the feisty House members, many of whom are new to the chamber and want to convince voters back home that they came to Washington to change things, and to stop the spending bonanza.

While the Senate farm bill cuts $26.4 billion in farm bill spending over ten years, there will likely be up to $3.4 billion of those cuts used in the next few days to help soothe disgruntled senators and farm groups.

It's not what you cut, it's what you spend. And while the likely eventual $23 billion cut sounds like a lot and is, remember that is an estimate based on Congressional Budget Office assumptions on prices, participation (in the case of dairy policy), etc. And while the 2002 Farm Bill came in considerably lower than CBO projections at the time that bill was written, the reverse could be the case with whatever year is put on the new farm bill version. Reason: the budget exposure of the coming bill could be substantial if commodity prices, especially for corn and soybeans, are substantially lower than CBO projections.

Also, the Senate farm bill, with the cuts, would still spend $994 billion over ten years. Even in Washington that is still a chunk of money. And again, that is based on CBO price and other assumptions.

So what is next for the Senate Ag Committee? Sources inform that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) scheduled no floor votes today to allow Senate Ag Committee members to complete their markup. That will not happen due to the postponement of today's previously scheduled markup session.

A big push is on by Senate Ag Committee leaders and staff to get a markup session going on Thursday, April 26, but at the latest on Friday, and if so, that would be a marathon session. The reason is that some contacts signal if this week does not conclude the Ag Committee markup, then it will be at least 12 days before another markup session could be held (the reason for 12 days was not provided). The Senate is out next week on another break, and will return the week of May 7. A markup session could still take place the week of May 14, in time to get something completed before the Memorial Day week-long recess.

As for possible changes ahead, northern-tier senators from Montana and North Dakota are pushing hard for changes to the Ag Risk Coverage (ARC) language (return of reference prices?). Dairy processors do not like the supply management provisions in the dairy policy title in the current mark. And rice and cotton growers, groups and their senators definitely want a more equitable farm bill for those crop enterprises.

Moving from base to planted acres for ARC payments explains a big portion of the dilemma for rice, cotton and wheat, and why most corn and soybean growers and their lobby groups like the current mark. But rice, especially, needs more than tweaking.

Senate sources say it was known that the farm bill draft saved more than the goal of $23 billion because they knew some senators and groups would be lobbying for changes. That is why there is up to $3.4 billion in additional money to offset some of the negatives being cited about the committee mark. However, when it comes to farm bill spending, that $3.4 billion has probably been spent ten times over.

The current farm bill mark was written by the Chairwoman and Ranking Member as usual, distributed to staff, and then modified. A lot of people and groups were asked to provide input, I am told. Groups were offered as many meetings as they wanted to come in and discuss ideas and concerns. Some came in multiple times, others did not, sources advise. "If there are complaints about the mark, that is not the fault of any committee staff or members, it is the fault of those groups that chose not to participate in the process. Members of commodity organizations should ask their representatives how many times they sat down with staff and/or members. Some won't want to answer that question," one contact informed.

But one farm bill veteran responded, "One thing that I would add is that there is a difference between hearing and listening. One is just checking the box but doing nothing about it and the other is following up with solutions to address the concerns."

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