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PERSPECTIVE: Off-base, Politically Tinged Commentary Evident in House Farm Bill Reaction by Some

11:15AM Jul 16, 2013

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

From liberal newspapers/media, to liberal commentaries, to others

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

A mostly political tone came from farm bill commentators, running from Senate Ag Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, to some major farm organizations and lobbyists, and even from some conservative groups who apparently want a total end to any farm subsidies.

Sen. Stabenow, who some say just wants a farm bill to be completed, period, called the House bill an "insult to Rural America." But that is certainly not the case when one realizes the House farm bill includes billions and billions of dollars for farm programs – and even some reform.

Food for thought. It appears that Stabenow and others who are very negative regarding the House farm bill are basing their "dismay" because of the lack of food stamp funding in the House farm bill. But GOP leaders have pledged that will come later via separate legislation or attached to another measure – perhaps the FY 2014 Ag appropriations bill or the coming debt limit hike negotiations.

What many commentators fail to point out, even though some of them know or should know, is that the food stamp program continues unchanged so long as regular appropriations are passed or Congress passes a continuing resolution to keep the government open. Certain nutrition programs would need to be reauthorized and funded. The food stamp program accounts for around 80 percent of annual USDA spending.

The big media bias? CBS "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer on Sunday said that the House Republicans passed a bill providing "welfare for the wealthy" while leaving the poor to fend for themselves. But as noted before, when it comes to the around $80 billion a year being spent for food stamps, that is simply not the case.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, who some label the most political Ag secretary in decades, took to the radio airwaves on Friday and complained about the House repealing permanent legislation that includes 1938 and 1949 laws. But it was the same Vilsack last year who wrote a letter warning that USDA would have a very hard time implementing any move to permanent legislation should Congress fail to ink a new farm bill or provide an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill. But on Friday, Vilsack said, "The notion that you would make the 2013 effort permanent and that you would eliminate permanent law I think also raises some serious questions about whether or not we’ll ever have a comprehensive food, farm and jobs bill in the future. I think we need that leverage in order to compel people to get the work done, in order to compel them to tweak or make modifications or changes based on conditions. So I’m going to be really focused on whether or not the House gets conferees appointed quickly. If they do then everything’s on the table and reasonable people can work out differences. If they don’t then I think we have some very serious days ahead in terms of a lack of clarity and lack of certainty about what the programs are going to be." Link to what USDA's General Counsel sent out on this issue last year.

Vilsack's arguments in favor of permanent legislation were echoed by Mary Kay Thatcher, Senior Director of Congressional Relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. She told Agri-Talk, a radio program, that "The fact is that without the threat of that [permanent 1939 and 1949] law, which most people believe is considerably more expensive than what we have now—it’s certainly an administrative nightmare for USDA—and it’s also very inequitable because you have commodities like sugar and soybeans that don’t have a program in 1949. It’s really the sledgehammer that’s there to make sure we don’t just let the farm bill expire and do nothing about it. And so to remove that, even to replace it with the 2013 law for Title I is just that sledgehammer isn’t going to be there." She added that "this will be a very, very high priority for virtually all of agriculture once we do get to a conference committee."

But some veteran farm policy observers, while clearly in the minority versus the farm policy protectionists, think that the House move to repeal permanent legislation and replace it with whatever comes out of Title I language is the proper approach to take. They note that other titles such as conservation and trade, for example, were never part of the permanent legislation of the past. They also note relying on what Thatcher called a "sledgehammer" is more like a threat or bribe to force Congress into working on legislation that just may not be needed at a particular time. Others note that the very outdated permanent legislation gives farm group lobbyists and farm state lawmakers and their panels comfort that they are needed when the case may be the opposite. And the need for a new farm bill every few years clearly fills some reelection campaign funds from those farm bill interest groups and lobbyists.

Even some conservative groups like Heritage Foundation have, according to some veteran observers, misplayed their strategy relative to the farm bill debate by first pushing for separate farm policy and nutrition funding bills and then complaining about it when the House actually did what the group initially urged.

Many if not most of the same commentators who are taking shots at the House farm bill approach last year complained when House GOP leadership did not bring the measure to a vote before the 2012 elections because the GOP leaders said the votes were not ample enough for passage. The failure this June in the House's first attempt at a combined farm bill showed that GOP leaders were clearly more accurate in their assessment last year than their 2012 naysayers.

So the political hype and ample liberal-leaning farm group lobbyist efforts will continue. In the end, some believe that food stamp funding will again find its way into a final farm bill conference report. But how and the amount of such funding are sincere issues that are not being hyped. And failing any such accord, veteran observers still believe the odds favor another extension of the 2008 Farm Bill – perhaps a more lengthy one to get Congress past the 2014 elections because increasingly even Washington is getting farm bill fatigue.

Bottom line: No one knows the farm bill end zone for sure. But it will likely go one of three ways: (1) Most likely: An end-of-session grouping of the farm bill, including food stamp funding, with other key issues likely including a continuing resolution (CR) for Fiscal Year 2014 funding and a short-term extension of the debt-limit ceiling. Farm bill savings could be used for some "pay-fors" regarding those other issues; (2) An extension of the 2008 Farm Bill, and perhaps longer than a one-year extension to get the matter through 2014 elections; (3) a solo House-Senate farm bill conference report.


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