Rep. Lucas Lays Out Parameters of Ag Panel Leader Talks on Budget/Farm Bill Plan

October 25, 2011 12:31 PM
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via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

An insider look at ongoing farm bill issues, debate, and Super Committee proposal

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House Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Texas) has been busy of late, besides just working with his Democratic counterpart on the House Ag Committee Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and that panel’s Ranking Republican Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) on how to put details down on the $23 billion they have recommended to the Super Committee of lawmakers relative to cuts in agriculture spending. Lucas has also managed to try and get the word out in the countryside on what those lawmakers are doing to formulate policy that could form the basis of the next U.S. farm bill.

Lucas this week has done interviews with Agri-Talk, Oklahoma Farm Report and he did a telephone hookup with the Texas Ag Forum. In all three of these sessions, some similar themes and topics have emerged from the Oklahoma lawmaker.

Following are highlights of his comments and our analysis of those remarks:

  • Super Committee members Lucas has talked with seemed “pretty positive” with the $23 billion in cuts proposed by the four leaders of the House and Senate Ag Committees. Lucas said those proposed cuts were from a series of long discussions to meet the Ag Committees' responsibility to help reduce the overall deficit and without turning farm policy inside out. He could not say whether or not the $23 billion is a perfect number, but noted others had higher figures. Asked if the new farm bill would for sure be under the protection of the Super Committee, Lucas said that is “possible.” If everything comes together, Lucas said, there will be a farm bill “that hopefully will stand for five years. But if we can't work through all these proposals, then there may not be a proposal and we go back to regular order next summer.” Of the options being discussed by Ag panel leaders, Lucas characterized them as “war-gaming” the various options from all angles.

  • Lucas also referred to the situation with the Super Committee as “standing over our shoulders or behind us with a cattle prod.”

  • Lucas said the Ag panels may be the only Committees where Republicans and Democrats are working together on a plan to provide the Super Committee with details of actual cuts and how they will be achieved in policy. He said it would not be surprising if they end up writing a new farm bill under more normal conditions in "regular order" in 2012. However, the opportunity to lock in the baseline for agriculture over the next five years or longer is very appealing to the House Ag Committee Chairman.

  • Timeline: Lucas said legislative language would have to be in place by “early November” regarding how the cuts and farm policy would unfold.

  • Regarding other House Agriculture members that are not part of the ag leadership discussions, Lucas said he is having discussions with them regularly, and with commodity groups. And should the Ag panel leaders finalize their plan, the other members on the panel “will have a chance to look it over… if there’s something to look over.”

  • The White House, Lucas said, didn't know what it was doing to Rural America when President Obama recently proposed $33 billion in cuts out of agriculture, all from the crop insurance and the commodity and conservation titles, and nothing from nutrition. He characterized Obama's plan as the one that “has been repudiated by both Republicans and Democrats,” adding the parties involved “know where we’re not going.”

  • On dairy policy reform efforts by Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Lucas said it is still a work in progress that continues to be refined and improved. There needs to be a consensus bill, but “we are not there yet,” Lucas said. But the dairy policy plan currently being worked on, Lucas said, “has generated more feedback than almost any other possibility in this farm bill legislation.”

  • No major surprises in Lucas' comments on the breakdown of the $23 billion in proposed cuts: $15 billion in commodity programs, $6 billion “or so” in conservation program spending cuts, and $4 billion “or so” in nutrition program savings. He stressed those are “floating numbers.” Those total more than $23 billion, but Lucas was not asked or did not detail where the extra savings would go.

  • Lucas cited the mantra that the goal will be an equitable farm bill for all commodities and regions.

  • The two priorities, he said, continue to be crop insurance and an effective revenue assurance program. “You must strengthen crop insurance. There must be some kind of revenue assurance plan. It is important we have a bill that is equitable by commodity and region.” The farm bill, he said, is for the whole country.

  • Direct payments, Lucas said, are in “grave danger of going away,” but he did not definitely say they would be eliminated. During both programs Lucas called direct payments the most WTO, trade compliant part of recent farm bills.

  • Lucas further detailed relative to the situation with direct payments that they have “historically provided a stream of income that producers could go to discuss with their bankers… that they could plan on for five years. How do you come up with a way to tighten up crop insurance and potentially create a revenue proposal that would take the place of the certainty that direct payments provided? I don’t know that such language exists now. That’s one of the options we’re in great discussion on -- how do you do that.”

  • Conservation: Discussions so far between the House and Senate Ag panel leaders in this area have focused on “a discussion of savings achieved through duplicative programs. Spending may have to be reduced.” But he stressed a key will be to “maintain the framework of the programs” such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

  • Nutrition: Lucas stressed that area has to be addressed relative to the budget reductions, and said that can be achieved via “efficiency” in the area that amounts to three-quarters of USDA’s spending on an annual basis.

Bottom line: Not much new in the comments. On dairy, some sources were surprised Lucas did not reveal a deal on dairy policy was either at hand or near. Some sources signal the dairy supply management language is being tweaked to garner more acceptance. Peterson, sources inform, is insisting dairy reform along the lines of his proposal must be part of the final package to get his signature on the deal.

Interestingly, both the interviewers of Lucas referred to the speech USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack gave this week in Iowa as being either a detailed farm bill discussion or even a detailed farm bill proposal. However, much like the comments from Lucas to the two radio programs, little new came from Vilsack relative to the next farm bill.

But Lucas also made it clear he views this as a potentially fragile process and one that he won't be afraid to walk away from and revert back to the "regular" farm bill process if he doesn't view the eventual plan as one that is "fair and equitable." In this budget-driven environment, that could prove a tall order.

It remains unclear as to whether or not the Super Committee would sign off on any legislative language that would lock in the farm bill baseline and thus rule out any additional farm bill-related cuts during the next five years. Lucas of course could not answer that line of questioning.

The reports did not zero in on some other important areas like the possibility of double-dipping in future farm program payments, and whether or not there is a major effort to base payments on planted acres rather than base acres.

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






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