Parties trade barbs over failure to pass farm bill, disaster aid

News
Aug 17, 2012
by DTN

After the House passed the disaster aid bill two weeks ago, House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders met to discuss consideration of the five-year farm bill, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow told DTN.

Among those participating in the meeting were Stabenow, D-MI; House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK; House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-MN; and Senate Agriculture ranking member Pat Roberts, R-KS, and Mike Joanns of NE, along with other senators.

Stabenow said the meeting, which took place as the senators and House members were preparing to leave Washington until Sept. 10, was “great,” but she did not reveal details of the discussions.

Stabenow said in a Senate floor speech that she would pursue “a dual strategy” in September: to pass a full five-year farm bill, but, if that effort fails, to pass comprehensive disaster aid.

“With or without official conferees it is our intent to have conversations to see if we might come together on something that will bring differences,” Stabenow said in her floor remarks.

If the Senate has to pass a stand-alone disaster aid bill, Stabenow said, “it will be a very strong, comprehensive disaster assistance program not just for livestock but for all of our communities.”

Stabenow said she and Roberts wanted Lucas and Peterson to understand how much the senators want a five-year bill passed.

Stabenow said she has full confidence in Lucas, but said she believes he has a problem with his leadership. She also said that House passage of the disaster bill put pressure on the Senate leadership to act on the issue, but that she advised the leaders that passing the five-year farm bill would be a better way to address it.

Stabenow noted that the Senate-passed farm bill would make bigger payments to livestock producers hurt by the drought and that the Senate-passed bill would make payments to fruit producers who have lost their fruit while the House-passed bill would only make payments if the growers lost their trees.

Many Michigan producers, Stabenow said, lost their fruit in a freeze this spring or in the drought, but their trees have survived. Growers who still have living trees would get no payments under the House-passed plan, she said.

She did not say whether the four principals reached agreement on a work agenda for the committee staff over the August recess to try to move a bill faster after Congress returns in September.

The House has only seven or eight legislative days in September, and it will be difficult to find floor time to finish the bill.

Lucas said the staff could work on some issues, but warned that the four leaders would need to be present for major decisions.

The meeting did not stop Stabenow, Roberts and other members of Congress from issuing partisan statements about the House vote on disaster aid and its unwillingness to take up the five-year farm bill.

“It’s deeply troubling that the House would leave farmers and small businesses in the lurch at a time when our agriculture economy is vulnerable and facing incredible uncertainty,” Stabenow said. “A five-year farm bill not only provides the immediate relief producers need to battle drought and disaster, it also gives farmers the long-term certainty and additional tools they need to keep growing and creating jobs over the long-term.

“By refusing to bring up the farm bill, House leadership is doing what Congress always does—kicking the can down the road instead of coming together to solve problems,” Stabenow said.

“If Congress does not pass a farm bill, there will be no reform, direct payments will continue, we’ll lose the opportunity for major deficit reduction, and we’ll deliver a real blow to our economic recovery,” she said.

Roberts said he was “outraged the Senate Democrats left town without even considering the House-passed disaster package.”

“They are playing politics with a devastating drought,” Roberts said.

“Make no mistake—the consequences of Senate inaction on this historic drought will not only be felt at home in Kansas, they will be felt in rising food prices at dinner tables across the nation.

Every day that passes without livestock disaster assistance is another day that farmers and ranchers are forced to reduce their herds.”

Johanns also criticized the Senate Democratic leadership for not passing drought relief.

“I would prefer for Congress to pass a five-year farm bill before leaving town, but that doesn’t mean we should hold vital drought relief hostage,” Johanns said.

“The only responsible course of action at this point would be to pass critical disaster relief for American farmers and ranchers just like the Republican-controlled House did. Instead, Democrats are choosing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

During the debate on the disaster bill, Lucas pushed for bringing up the farm bill when Congress comes back and urged members to discuss the issue with their constituents while they are back in their districts.

“Let’s go home and prepare for a farm bill debate when we come back,” Lucas told his colleagues, urging them to vote for the disaster bill. “But, most importantly, let’s go home.”

Peterson said he was working on changes to the food stamp program that could save money. The Senate bill cuts the food stamp program by $4.5 billion while the House bill cuts it by $16.5 billion.

Peterson said he is most interested in tightening up on “categorical eligibility,” which states use in different ways to qualify people for food stamps. Peterson said that the food stamp budget should be cut by at least $8 billion and it will be “helpful” to cut it by “double digits.”

Peterson said that resolving the conflicts over the commodity title would be more difficult than reaching agreement on the nutrition title.

He said he does not like the “shallow loss” program, and believes it will replace direct payments as the target of critics. If farmers need shallow-loss insurance policies, they can buy them.

Peterson predicted that 80 to 100 Democrats will vote for a farm bill conference report, but that fewer will vote for the House bill that must precede it.

The 223-197 vote on the disaster bill was closer than expected, said Peterson, who voted for the bill but was unenthusiastic about it.

Lucas noted that 46 Republicans had voted against the disaster aid while 35 Democrats voted for it, signaling that it still takes a bipartisan coalition of the middle to pass farm legislation. The vote “demonstrates that we can do something,” Lucas said. — Jerry Hagstrom, DTN Political Correspondent

{rating_box}