The Senate Ag Committee will be embarking on the farm bill process earlier than originally expected based on the announcement Tuesday of four hearing areas the panel will focus on as it starts to put together the next version of U.S. farm law.
The first hearing will be June 30 in Washington and will focus on "Maintaining Our Domestic Food Supply through a Strong U.S. Farm Policy." That hearing will take place in the Senate Ag Committee's hearing room in the Senate Russell Office Building.
"The farm bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation Congress considers on behalf of rural America and our nation's farmers and ranchers," Senate Ag Committee chair Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) said in announcing the hearings. "As we look toward the upcoming farm bill, I will use these hearings to gather feedback on how the current bill is working and lay the groundwork for the future of our nation's farm, nutrition, conservation, rural development, research, forestry and energy priorities. This first hearing will focus on maintaining a sound U.S. farm policy to protect our most vital resource -- our food supply. Our food security, millions of jobs and a good share of our national economy depends on the work our farmers and ranchers do every day. The farm bill is necessary and vitally important to ensure we continue to have a safe, reliable and affordable supply of food, while protecting our natural resources."
Lincoln originally had signaled that the farm bill process in her committee would not get started until later to much later this year given the other priorities that the panel expected to work on as 2010 unfolded.
But with Lincoln facing a tough primary challenge from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter (D), some observers say the fact the hearings have been announced is a nod to the importance that her Arkansas constituency places on the ag panel. The next test for Lincoln in her re-election bid is a runoff election June 8 against Halter, as neither candidate was able to capture the Democratic nod last month in the primary election.
With the House Ag Committee already having held several hearings in farm country and in Washington on the next U.S. farm bill, that could have ramped up pressure on Lincoln to get her panel moving on the topic. House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said his goal in starting the hearing process even though implementation of the 2008 farm bill is still unfolding was in part to get a bill done "on time" -- September 2012.
Beyond the June 30 hearing, here are the other hearing areas that Lincoln announced:
- Hearing 2: Revitalizing the Rural Economy through Robust Rural Development
- Hearing 3: Promoting Conservation Practices that Preserve Our Natural Resources and Wildlife Habitat for Future Generations
- Hearing 4: Ensuring Agriculture Is Part of Our Nation's Energy Future
It will be interesting to see who the panel taps to testify at these sessions. Peterson started his House hearings with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack testifying, following that up with field hearings and then a another hearing in Washington that featured academics and economists delivering their views on the 2008 farm bill and what should follow that in terms of U.S. farm law. And Peterson found that folks testifying in field hearings were largely pleased with the 2008 farm bill.
But no matter who testifies and no matter how many hearings are held by either panel, there is a factor which likely will have far more say in the final version of the next farm bill -- the budget. That is one that few lawmakers want to contemplate addressing at this juncture, and with good reason -- they don't know what the bill's spending baseline will be. But Peterson and other observers are convinced a "status quo" bill will not be the final outcome.