The themes that emerged from Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow's (D-Mich.) address of ag stakeholders at the 2012 Farm Journal Forum hosted with Informa Economics, was optimism that ag leaders in the House and Senate will be able to work together to complete a farm bill and opposition to an extension of the current farm bill. She made it very clear that she does not consider kicking the can down the road to 2013 to be an option.
Stabenow came straight from a meeting at the White House on export policy, at which she said she told President Obama that if he needs help on the fiscal cliff, those on the ag committee know how to work together to get things done.
This set the tone of her address. She said that ag committee members are "ready and willing" to put forth farm bill savings to address the fiscal cliff. Several times, she made reference to the fact that last year the Ag Committee was the only panel that followed through in offering cuts as part of the failed Super Committee debt reduction process.
She notd that while getting a farm bill through committee was not easy, when "people of good will sit around a table, you can always figure things out." She elaborated that the difference is that every single person on the committee cares about ag, conservation and nutrition. For that reason, she is confident they'll get a farm bill done.
Stabenow noted that "honest policy differences remain to be brokered" and that both the House ag panel and Senate versions of the farm bill make a strong case for certain components. But she also says there are plenty of areas of agreement -- notably that a five-year farm bill is needed, direct payments should be eliminated, similar conservation titles and crop insurance is a key risk management tool. She says this common ground is where lawmakers should start and then they can come together to work on tough issues.
"There is no excuse not to get a farm bill … or long-term deficit plan," Stabenow says, emphasizing that not doing so would be "irresponsible."
Stabenow seemed to indicate that's how she viewed the House's decision not to bring the Ag Panel-passed farm bill to the floor for debate, which she likened to a decision to "ignore rural America."
And she emphasized the need for a farm bill sooner rather than later. Stabenow says she will actively oppose any farm bill extension, citing the 37 programs that would needed to be negotiated as they will expire. Dealing with these would equate to negotiating a farm bill, according to Stabenow.
Further, Stabenow said there was "no question" President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would pick a bigger number for cuts if the issue is delayed. Plus, pushing it into 2013 would mean dealing with a new Congressional Budget Office baseline, which she says could throw the savings target out of whack.
All of this, according to Stabenow, emphasizes that too much uncertainty would stem from pushing the farm bill into 2013 and would jeopardize keeping decisions as to cuts in the hands of the ag committee rather than those without ties to ag.
Questioned about House Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas' comments earlier in the day about the need for a "transition period" that he was careful not to label as an extension, Stabenow said any transition period would be situational and would be worked through closely with USDA, though she reiterated her opposition to a 2008 Farm Bill extension.
Questioned about the looming fiscal cliff and the reversion to a $1 million estate tax exemption from the current $5 million exemption for individuals, Stabenow said there was "no way" she would support such a reversion. She said this was very much part of the larger discussion and noted "overwhelming agreement" against a reversion to that exemption level.
She said remaining at the current level or going back to the 2009 exemption level of $3.5 per person is more likely. Stabenow also said a two-step process to avoid sequestration with a down payment and some means of avoiding tax extenders at year end to allow for broad tax reform later in the year ahead was a possibility.