Results of First Farm Bill Conference Session: More of the Same

October 31, 2013 03:14 AM

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New farm bill conference, but same old issues

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Farm bill conferees made clear during the first session on Wednesday that a quick agreement on a conference report will not occur because of several lingering issues. The following were several of the topics discussed during Wednesday's session:

* Farm bill linkage with budget package. Conferees noted the possibility that farm bill savings might be tapped in a larger budget deal worked out by budget negotiators, but farm bill conferees insisted they would decide the fate of the farm bill details. "The Budget Committee will not be writing the farm bill. We will write the farm bill. The reality is we know we have savings that will help solve the larger budget problems," said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who is also a Senate Budget conferee. "We will write the farm bill. We will be the ones editing the farm bill and offering a responsible bill. We know we have savings that can help solve the larger budget problems, but we together with our colleagues in the room today will be the ones writing the farm bill," Stabenow said. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, said he will fight any effort to fold the farm bill into a larger budget agreement."I will fight that tooth and nail," Peterson said. "Even if they get a budget deal, if they put the farm bill in there, I will do everything I can to kill it, and it probably won’t take much to kill the budget deal." Peterson said such a move could further undermine the autonomy of the Agriculture panel within the House. "I might as well just retire and go home," Peterson said. "If we’re going to get a position where they’re going to put the farm bill into some other bill, then what are we doing? You know, I mean that’s a very dangerous precedent to start and to accept. That’s my problem. It might be a great bill, but it’s just the wrong thing to do because then the next thing you know, next time that’s going to be what they’re going to start out working on."House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), who previously opposed including farm bill savings as part of a broader budget proposal, said he was less wary of the idea now. Lucas said the budget committee could count whatever savings the farm bill achieves — after the fact, but again noted that "you can’t have our money unless you take our policy." Lucas said that he is now "comfortable" that the budget conference will not interfere with the farm bill process.

* Crop insurance: House members made clear they did not like the Senate’s proposed new restrictions on crop insurance.

* Conservation compliance linkage with crop insurance. Several conferees, including Stabenow, supported linking conservation compliance to crop insurance, a development many House negotiators strongly oppose. "As we make this shift to risk management policies, it is very important that farmers and ranchers continue to do the things that make them the best stewards of our land and water resources," Stabenow said. Stabenow said the farm bill stood by the principle of expanding and improving crop insurance. "Our bill reflects that by expanding crop insurance to cover more farmers and more kinds of crops," she said. But she said that reconnecting conservation compliance helps protect the future of agriculture. She also called on lawmakers to save grasslands by enacting a national sod-buster provision in the Senate bill. Lucas said he is not in favor of more regulatory burdens. "Tying this measure to crop insurance is a redundant regulatory burden on people who are already the best caretakers of our natural resources and who already have conservation practices in place," he said.

* Meat policy issues. Some conferees called for addressing USDA's country-of-origin meat labeling rules and eliminating proposed restrictions on poultry industry contracting. A provision in the House bill would require the department to do an extensive economic analysis of the regulations within six months. The study would have to assess the impact of the rules on consumers, producers and packers. House conferee Mike Conaway (R-Texas) labeled COOL "a failed experiment." Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) said COOL would be "one of the key issues" for the conference. "A mandatory, government-run labeling program is not only trade-distorting, but it increases costs without demonstrating real benefits," he said. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) praised the House bill for addressing a series of "burdensome regulations," including COOL.

* Animal-handling regulations. Stabenow opposed an amendment sponsored by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) that would block California’s animal-handling regulations. "One area of great concern is the provision that would override state government’s constitutional authorities on a wide range of issues including animal welfare, milk standards, labeling of artificial sweeteners and invasive pests — just to name a few," Stabenow said. The King amendment is aimed at stopping California from banning eggs laid by hens living in tiny battery cages. King said one of his top priorities in conference would be to defend his provision that prevents states from blocking the commerce of agricultural goods approved by USDA or the Food and Drug Administration. Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) described the King language as "anti-California" because a ballot measure on chicken cages was the impetus of King's amendment. "It sets up a one-size-fits-all policy to be determined in Washington," Costa said. He questioned why federalists would back the amendment. King disagreed with Costa's remarks.

* Food stamp/SNAP funding. Stabenow signaled she will use a cut in food aid benefits that takes effect Nov. 1 to argue for holding down the reduction to nutrition assistance in the farm bill, which the House bill (HR 2642) sets at $39 billion over 10 years. She said the benefit cut, coupled with the $4 billion over 10 years reduction for food aid in the Senate farm bill (S 954), would save $15 billion. Lucas said he had no extra money to address the expired food stamp funding. Lucas said he has talked with colleagues about the impending cuts. "How do you in this environment try to address that? We’re trying to craft a way to address those issues. As you’ve heard me say, we don’t have new money. We don’t have old money. We don’t have any money." But Lucas said that addressing that round of cuts could be part of a final deal on food stamps. Stabenow said the reductions would total $11 billion over the next three years (other sources say the figure is $16 billion) and should be considered as the conference committee looks at food aid policy. Stabenow said "the good news" is that the Congressional Budget Office has projected that "over 14 million people will no longer need temporary food help over the next few years because the economy is improving and they will be able to go back to work."

Peterson noted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) effort to use the farm bill to tighten eligibility rules for food stamp recipients. "I believe that if the conference committee is left alone and allowed to do our work, we’ll be able to find some middle ground and finish the farm bill," Peterson said. Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), placed on the committee by House leaders, is spearheading the push for cuts to food stamps. He called them commonsense reforms that would improve efficiency. Of note, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said urged conferees to make allowances for people who are mentally unable to work full-time from being impacted by any work requirements on food aid recipients.

Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus who was appointed to the conference by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to defend food stamps, said she wants to convince the conference to "accept the link between farming and feeding." Fudge also said she is as concerned about the size of the cut for food stamps in the House proposal as she is about the fact that the bill would authorize nutrition programs for only three years while farm programs are authorized for five. But Fudge also said she looks forward to a "collaborative conclusion."

Food aid reform. In the House, a food aid amendment was introduced by the bipartisan leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The amendment would have allowed up to 45 percent of US food aid dollars to be spent on local sources and limited the inefficient practice of monetization. Supporters said the changes would have enabled our food aid to reach 4 million more hungry people. While the House amendment ultimately did not pass, it earned bipartisan support of 203 members of the House. Thus the reason why some observers think some food aid reform could show up in the final farm bill conference report. The farm bill passed in the Senate contains support for a modest but permanent local purchase program, increased cash flexibility and new accountability measures.

 * Key lawmaker blasts some farm group lobbyists. Rep. Michael Conaway (R-Texas) defended the House bill’s Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program that ties payments to planted acres up to base acres. Conaway said, "Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about planting distortions. I don’t know whether people are misinformed or if they just have trouble shooting straight. We are this far in the farm bill process despite the groups who are recklessly obsessed with this issue. We have had to do all the heavy lifting in fighting off harmful policies against their farmers, like AGI and conservation compliance on crop insurance, while they have spent their time on other endeavors. They ought to know that no one at this table is talking about going back to pre-1996 when farmers had to plant for the Farm Bill. They also ought to know that the House and Senate Farm Bills both use planted acres while capping them at different levels. By now, they should also be aware that the approach used by the House is the same approach used under the current ACRE program." But Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said the PLC target prices would be set so high they would "practically guarantee" farm profits, a conclusion not supported by university research cited by other farm bill conferees. Conaway said it would change one-tenth of 1 percent of planted acreage. But Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said, "Tying target prices to planted acres runs the risk of ruining decades of reform." Roberts said "a modern farm bill should not create planting, marketing, or international trade distortions. Let me be clear... target prices should be decoupled... and the government should not set prices at a level that practically guarantee profit, instead of acting as a risk-management tool."

 * Timeline. Stabenow indicated some of the conferees may meet or otherwise stay in touch during the upcoming House recess, which will last until Nov. 12.conference.

Comments: Not one new idea surfaced that had not been cussed and discussed for a long time. The key to any conclusion will be leadership and the willingness for stakeholders, including political leaders in both parties, to make decisions and give a little ground to get them. That has been woefully short in recent years. We will see in the next month or so whether or not there are grownups around.

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






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