What is New About Farm Bill Debate

February 22, 2012 08:42 PM

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Timing | Markups | Discord

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

It is ironic that House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders had a new farm bill ready to be attached to the failed Super Committee process, but now most observers are still betting that lingering hurdles will likely mean the omnibus farm bill will be completed in 2013, not this year. But there are efforts underway to make that general consensus a wrong calculation.

Markups coming. Talks with farm bill participants both inside and outside the government signal that some aggressive farm bill markup activity is ahead. A lot of work in getting markup language is underway in both the House and Senate Agriculture panels, contacts note.

A markup vehicle will likely be released, at least in the Senate, after the Easter recess, sources predict. The markup vehicle timeline is unclear in the House because of that chamber's coming budget resolution, which will likely help determine how much spending will be available (and the amount of budget cuts).

Different farm bill approaches. Unlike the Super Committee/farm bill linkage process, most observers expect there will be different markup vehicles via the House and Senate ag panels. For example, the House is widely expected to include higher target prices, with a farmer choice of those higher target prices or a revenue assurance program option – dubbed Ag Risk Coverage (ARC) in the aborted farm bill process late last year.

The Senate, however, may not include higher target prices, some sources note, although this is not a unanimous prediction. Those thinking the Senate will not include higher target prices as an option note there are no southern-based Democratic senators on the Senate Ag Committee, and at least rice groups have been urging a higher target price because that crop will be impacted far more than most other program crops with the likely coming elimination of direct payments. Peanuts are also a problem that some insist argues for a farmer's choice farm bill.

The discord regarding future farm policy that was evident during last year's closed-door negotiations continues, and has even escalated to some degree. For example, some American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) officials have publicly questioned the need to increase target prices, at least at the level reportedly contained in last year's aborted farm bill effort. Farm Bureau has also fought the push for any so-called "shallow loss" provisions contained in last year's farm bill draft – despite the continued push for that controversial language by some corn and soybean groups in particular.

Some of the more significant issues will be (1) whether the coming farm bill language will, as last year's draft, base farm program payments on planted rather than base acres, and (2) whether the trigger for program payments will be based on per-farm prices (as last year's farm bill draft), or as some groups prefer, a county price average, thereby saving billions of dollars in spending, and allowing for a higher percentage for which payments are based on. A floor debate on this issue is expected.

Shades of a conference strategy are already surfacing in that the House will likely not include the funding level that the Senate will likely have regarding specialty crops – a favorite topic for Senate Ag Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). And as noted before, the Senate may not include higher target prices, or target prices at all, unlike the House. Compromises on those differences could likely be the first of conference issues.

Regarding the timing of the farm bill, sources continue to note an "unwritten" deadline for the Senate Ag Committee to finish its markup vehicle by the Memorial Day recess. The unannounced House deadline is before the July Fourth congressional recess. If those markup "deadlines" are reached, the key then will be whether the House and Senate congressional leadership will allow floor time to actually debate the omnibus farm bill. Some sources predict floor debate could take place after Nov. 6 elections in a lame-duck session. Those predicting a 2013 timeline are primarily betting on the well-known dysfunctional status of this Congress.

Bottom line: Lawmakers are very used to kicking the can down the road on a host of important issues. Voters are increasingly saying they will kick those lawmakers out of office. Perhaps more than a few lawmakers who put up roadblocks in getting anything done this year will not be around next year. We know the timeline on that debate: Nov. 6.


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


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