Dairy Talk: Behind the Curtain

02:21AM Feb 24, 2014
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Now that the 2012 to 2014 farm bill debate is over, it’s time to look behind the curtain to see who won what.

The simple explanation was spelled out in my February Dairy Talk, "One man, no vote." Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) simply would not let the House and Senate Conference Report move to the floor of the House of Representatives if it contained supply management for dairy farmers.

"Unfortunately, the Speaker’s threat that he would not allow a vote on the farm bill containing the market stabilization program has effectively killed our proposal within the committee," conceded Jim Mulhern, CEO and president of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF).

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In effect, to use lobbyist lingo, NMPF would have had to "roll the chairman." Overturning the wishes of a chairman of a Congressional committee rarely happens, and rolling the Speaker never does. (The Republican’s inability to roll Nancy Pelosi when she was speaker of the House is the reason we now have Obamacare.)

Lobbying by processors and farmers opposed to supply management gave Boehner additional cover. Both Senate and House agriculture committees had supply management in their reports. "So it was imperative we won the vote in the House," says Jerry Slominski, Interna­tional Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) senior vice president for legislative affairs and economic policy.

IDFA wooed members and leaders of each of the five Demo­cratic caucuses, pointing out that supply management would raise consumer milk prices at the very time billions of dollars in food stamp aid were being cut. The strategy worked, with supply management stripped out of the House bill last summer by a vote of 291-135.

But others say Boehner’s opposition meant NMPF was fighting an uphill battle from the start. They say Democratic leaders knew supply management was dead on arri­val three years ago.

With supply management gone, the palace intrigue switched to the margin insurance program. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was in the middle of it all, say sources. The final margin insurance premiums locked into law are far different than those originally proposed, particularly for farmers shipping less than 4 million pounds of milk annually.

Also new are 25% premium discounts for the first two years of the program for the first 4 million pounds of production. These discounts were added late in the negotiations to benefit smaller farms and encourage them to sign up.

Leahy also reportedly wanted a third tier of premiums for annual milk production that exceeded
40 million pounds (2,000 cows or thereabout). The premiums for this insurance were much, much higher than the other categories. They were so high that most large farms would not have participated.

Lobbyists for NMPF and dairy organizations who wanted all sizes of farms eligible for affordable insurance had all they could do to keep this third tier of premiums out of the conference report.

In the end, the farm bill became as much of what people didn’t want included as what finally became law.   

jim dickrell, editor

Jim Dickrell is the Editor of Dairy Today. You can contact him at [email protected].