Farm Bill Update: Decision Time

November 19, 2013 10:17 PM

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Critical week for farm bill decisions

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

The issues are well known. A myriad of program proposals have been scored by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Lacking is final decisions by the four farm bill principals to move the process to the next step – House and Senate floor consideration of a conference report ironing out those differences, including the major difference of food stamp funding between the Senate's $4 billion cut over ten years, and the $39 billion cut in the House.

Tick, tick, tick. It's been said that even this Congress works sometimes with the clock ticking near the end. Well, some key dates are approaching to help goad the four farm-state lawmakers to quit listening to staff and others and finally reach an agreement. Consider:

This Thursday, Nov. 21: That is when House members are slated to depart for their Thanksgiving break. Most observers expect that if and when a farm bill conference report comes, the hard work will be to get it cleared in the House, not the Senate.

Dec. 3: This is the date when the GOP caucus next meets. And, there are only eight legislative days on the House agenda for the month of December. The GOP Caucus must be given a conference report in final form to consider at that session.

Dec. 13: House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has told House members that they can depart for home and the end of this session of Congress "at 11 a.m. ET on Dec. 13."

What the legislative calendar means: Before Dec. 3, farm bill conferees must have decisions in place in order for the result to be legislatively written, scored in finality by CBO, and to present to the Republican caucus. That process takes around ten days. That is why Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), House Ag Chairman and the farm bill conference chairman, said it is critical to have an accord by the time lawmakers leave for the Thanksgiving recess. "This is the deadline week, if we're going to have something done by the 13th. We're not there yet," Lucas said.

What is lacking to get an agreement? One inside source said, "Well, it takes at least two to agree among the difference chambers and I understand the Senate side is not compromising much at all on key commodity title (Title I) and food stamp funding and policy issues." The source and some other contacts say the Senate position could be to slow-walk the farm bill to force the issue into being included in an eventual Continuing Resolution (CR) that would fund the government past the latest, Jan. 15, 2014, cutoff date. The reasoning, some say, is that by waiting, Senate proponents of food stamps and other issues feel they will get a better outcome then going a separate farm bill route.

But public statements by Senate Ag Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) do not signal she wants the process to lag, despite conjecture to the contrary by some observers. Stabenow signaled that progress was being made on the commodity title. "We're in the middle of everything: on CBO scoring of thing depends on another...we're getting different scores and they are workable," she said. "We will have a combination" of House and Senate approaches in that title, she predicted.

But asked if a farm bill framework agreement could be reached this week, Stabenow demurred, saying she would "love to have an agreement with the four principals by the end of this week or very soon after. It's a big Rubik's cube and we're putting the pieces together."

As for Lucas, he simply said he was "still hopeful" for an agreement, adding he was "still enthusiastic, still trying, still meeting with everybody, but we've got to have some real progress this week."

Will the farm bill process be punted to House and Senate leaders again? One of the four farm bill principals, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), has frequently stated he wants farm-state lawmakers to write the farm bill and not have the process taken over by political leaders in both parties, as was the case when the 2008 Farm Bill was extended the last time. But that could well be the case if Peterson and the other three farm bill principals, Lucas, Stabenow and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), do not do what has eluded them thus far: make decisions and present a final conference report to their respective chambers.

So as Lucas and others say: the time is now for decisions. Not proposals, but decisions. If they don't believe they will lose control of the process, they just have to remember how surprised they were last year in December when decisions were made by others.

Comments: One long-term farm bill observer said, "If Sen. Stabenow doesn't come off her $4 billion cut position on SNAP, you can stick a fork in that overdone turkey called the farm bill." The contact plus other sources said Stabenow has previously offered Lucas a choice: Take the Senate's $4 billion cut for food stamps and she will accept the House farmer safety net programs. But sources say that was not a real offer because that would not fly in the House, and thus Lucas had no choice but to reject any such offer.

One commodity group consultant said, "Stabenow has to get reasonable on food stamps. Also, how would farm-state senators and national corn and soybean group lobbyists feel if her apparent offer to Lucas is for real because if so, she was willing to trade away the Senate's revenue-favored farmer safety net in return for no food stamp cut beyond the Senate's $4 billion cuts over ten years. This at least tells us where her priorities are if the offer was for real."


NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.






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