INTERVIEW: Sen. Chambliss Says Equity Issues Remain Key for His Support of Farm Bill

May 18, 2012 05:49 AM
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Rice and peanut issues key to farm bill debate | Stabenow, Roberts rejected target price option

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

Inequity issues relative to southern rice and peanut growers remain the key area that has Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) working to seek changes to the bill whenever it reaches the Senate floor and how those issues get addressed will be pivotal relative to whether Chambliss works against the passage of the full bill, he told me in an interview.

During the Senate Ag Committee’s April 26 markup, Chambliss and other southern members of the panel made it clear they viewed the Ag Risk Coverage (ARC) plan contained in the bill as not treating southern rice and peanut growers equitably compared to other crops – he and others voted against the bill in committee.

Some are talking of a potential transition program to be inserted into the bill for peanuts and rice which would allow producers to choose between ARC and a target/reference price option, with some suggesting that it be gradually phased out. Asked if that would win his support for the bill, Chambliss simply said, “That depends on what any transition plan looks like” relative to those two crops.

Here’s our problem,” Chambliss stated. “The revenue plan in the bill just doesn’t work for peanuts and rice. I am more familiar with peanuts, but there are problems with rice, too, as the reduction in benefits for rice was 70 percent versus only 25 percent for corn. That just shows what the inequity is relative to both crops.”

As for peanuts, Chambliss explained that crop “is not a traded commodity – you don’t have a price you can pick up and see in the newspaper. For that reason, ARC does not fit our mode of operation.” In addition, the use of a five-year Olympic average of planted acres is another factor working against peanuts. “If corn prices are up and peanuts are down, then you have a big shift to that alternative crop – corn, cotton or whatever it is,” he noted. “That makes it difficult to establish a five-year average as mandated by ARC.”

In an interesting revelation, Chambliss said he and others had “made a proposal” to Ag panel Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) to give “us an option to choose ARC or go toward more price protection. They didn’t want to do that for just peanuts and rice.” He also noted that there wasn’t even a budget score on their proposal since panel leaders apparently did not want it in the bill, which lead Chambliss to conclude that Stabenow listened far more to northern-tier and corn and soybean states.

Rep. Lucas a key player. While Senate floor action is uncertain, Chambliss said that House Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) is the key player on the House side for addressing the inequities that Chambliss and others feel exist in the Senate version of the bill.

As for farm bill timing, Chambliss said his view is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is “watching the House closely” relative to whether or not the farm bill will be given time on the Senate floor. “Farm bills are not short-term legislation,” Chambliss commented, noting the bills are usually a “knock-down, drag-out battle on the Senate floor. We’re not going to complete that bill in a week.”

And so far, Chambliss said, “there is no guarantee in the House they will take it up given the limited number of days that are left.”

Another issue is on payment limits, including a proposal from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) that was inserted in the Chairman’s Mark. It set a definition of actively engaged in farming which will discriminate against spouses, Chambliss said. “That has an impact on every single farming operation,” he noted. “Spouses who have been considered actively involved but don’t drive tractors would be cut out of being considered actively engaged. It is mystifying to me as to why that was put in the Manager’s Amendment.”

In addition, Chambliss pointed out that “we have fought this battle in every farm bill. Mr. Grassley has had that proposal and we have defeated it every single time.”

Peanut-sized incentive for ARC. Chambliss further noted that peanut growers “don’t have to worry about a $50,000 limit because the way the program is structured, we won’t come close to getting that level of benefit!”

Regarding support for the farm bill, Chambliss confirmed that not every lawmaker signing a recent Senate letter which called for the farm bill to be given time on the Senate floor was supporting the bill. He said he talked to one such senator who noted disapproval of the bill, but yet signed the letter.

If the provisions on peanuts and rice and on payment limits are not changed, Chambliss said his is “not going to vote for a bill unless it looks after all crops in all areas of the country. I will do everything I can to see that the bill is defeated on the Senate floor if the right kind of corrections are not made.”

Prior farm bills have gained approval “because the leadership reaches out to all members in all areas of the country,” Chambliss continued. “If you’re losing support from a major section of the country such as on the peanut and rice issues, you will have a hard time getting the votes from the Southeast states.”

Florida, he noted, may be a question mark as the bill has unchanged sugar provisions from the current bill and the state has only a minimal amount of peanuts, Chambliss added. However, he noted that some California rice growers “feel the same way we do” about the current Senate version of the farm bill.

Nutrition programs are another likely point of contention, as Chambliss noted the “no” vote by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) on the committee level due to the cuts the panel approved to food and nutrition programs. “There will be a certain number that will not vote for any farm bill and there are Republicans and Democrats in that category,” he said. “The food stamp title was treated in a more favorable manner than what the House will do. And, any conference bill will be tougher on food stamps and if it comes back to the Senate chamber, that will be an issue.”

Does he potentially have 41 votes to stymie passage of the bill? Chambliss acknowledged he has “not started counting the votes at this point.”

Returning to the timing of the farm bill, Chambliss said his gut tells him the bill won’t be passed before the elections. That could put it into a post-election lame-duck session. While the farm bill could be possible in a lame-duck session of Congress after the Nov. 6 elections, Chambliss said, a lot of issues will be up for grabs in that session. “We have so much to do in the lame-duck session,” he observed. “I told someone the other day I didn’t realize we have 3 months between Thanksgiving and Christmas!”

Returning again to his key issue of rice and peanuts, Chambliss said, “Is there a way to make rice and peanut farmers happy? There is. That is to give us an option. Let us have a voice. That is all we are asking.”

Regarding the shift relative to the farm bill effort last fall which had a choice for farmers between higher target/reference prices and a revenue-type plan, Chambliss said that it appeared cost drove the decision to drop the target/reference prices. Chambliss acknowledged that should target prices return in the final farm bill, “they will likely be at levels lower than what were in the farm bill draft last fall.”

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






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