Regional Skirmishes, Overreaching Latest Challenges to Farm Bill Negotiations

November 8, 2011 11:15 PM
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Secretive farm bill process critics say current framework is too corn centric

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

Farm-state lawmakers from Plains and Western states reportedly feel short-changed relative to the apparently favored Midwest (corn, soybean) states.

The problem in large part, sources confirm, stems from the very selective, behind-closed-door process that Ag panel leaders have chosen in an attempt to come up with omnibus farm bill language without the usual extra money to throw round to cautious lawmakers and others.

“Any time you’re looking at five-year farm bill policy, the devil is in the details,” said Senate Ag Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), adding the challenge is on Title I – commodity programs. “It’s always a matter of putting something together that is as fair as possible,” she added.

Northern-tier states are used to getting their way in farm policy, what with outgoing Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) a major writer of past farm bills largely behind the scenes. Sens. Conrad and Max Baucus (D-Mont.), and their staffs, keep pushing a modified version of the Supplemental Revenue Assistance (SURE) federal disaster program, but sources say if they are successful, any such inclusion could lead to losing some support from other lawmakers.

Western-state lawmakers via the 2008 farm bill got their first major funding, calling it a “down payment” for more ahead. They apparently do not like the current language for their states and commodities.

To show how acerbic the process has become is a quote from the Congressional Quarterly, which reported a Senate Democratic aide saying lawmakers from the Plains and Western state regions left a briefing thinking “this boondoggle looks like it was drafted by the corn lobby; it’s a great sequel to that other giveaway to corn agribusiness — ethanol.”

Initial disgruntlement focused on rice and peanut producers, but those commodities/groups apparently were dealt with via higher to a lot higher target prices – and an option to either take what some say is a corn- and soybean-favored revenue assurance program, or the more traditional farm program safety net without direct payments, but higher target prices.

Behind the apparent opposition is the trigger mechanism for revenue assurance program payments. If those are made on county-wide loss averages, farmers in the West and Plains states note their regions have much larger counties than do those in the Midwest, likely meaning farmers in a portion of the county may suffer losses while the overall county average remains above a designated threshold.

It apparently didn't take long for some observers to realize that some commodities such as corn and rice would not have to decline as much as other commodities to trigger a payment. This may be the reason, sources say, that Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has been reluctant to embrace the recommended changes.

The need for a better balanced farm bill approach is being heard by a growing number of lawmakers and others who think the current process is too corn centric. “We need to make this fair,” said Sen. Conrad.

Roberts has now gone public with his prior behind-the-scenes criticism. He said Stabenow and House Ag Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) are the architects of the farm bill outline not yet in legislative language, and that the framework has not been evaluated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Stabenow has said Roberts is part of the process.

But Roberts, who has experience in heading the House Ag Committee when a farm bill was written, said Republicans on the Senate committee “have serious concerns.” He did not elaborate.

Comments: Discord along the lines previously described usually leads to a pick-up-the-pieces meeting and an eventual compromise. That remains to be seen when some are pushing revolutionary farm bill changes that have not yet been scored totally by CBO, and are seen as not balanced for regions and crops. Bottom line: The state of play on the fluid farm bill process may show few Ag Committee members other than some but not all of the panel leadership in support of what they have been briefed on.

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






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