Farm bill discussions begin with search for consensus

Nov 1, 2013

Last week, Congress opened the much-anticipated farm bill discussion by offering each of the 41 committee members the opportunity to voice their thoughts.

House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK), who also chairs the conference talks, shared his hopes for a consensus on the much-debated policy.

“I hope we are keenly aware of our responsibility to put policy in place that is good for our farmers, ranchers, consumers and those who have hit difficult times. This takes place despite considering a complicated bill in an environment where the political battles can be loud and unhelpful. Consensus has proven to be an elusive goal at times in Congress, but it is a word that underscores the work we do in the agriculture community every day,” he said.

“When we are successful, when we have reached consensus, we will have a final product that provides major savings to the Treasury, significant reforms to policy, and yet still provides a safety net for not only the production of food and fiber, but also to ensure our fellow citizens have enough food to eat,” he added.

Lucas also voiced his concerns for a safety net for agriculture.

“A farm bill should not guarantee that the good times are the best, but rather that the bad times are manageable,” Lucas said.

Lucas placed priority on the livestock SURE and crop insurance program, but pointed out the problems with “layers of bureaucracy” and redundancy.

“We restore the Livestock Forage Program and the Livestock Indemnity Program that is important to our ranchers. Crop insurance covers 128 crops, 282 million acres, and serves as a good example of a privatepublic partnership where producers pay a premium for coverage to help them survive when a disaster hits. During a series of hearings on farm policy, farmers explained time and again that crop insurance is an essential risk management tool that should be preserved. For those of us who enjoy eating, it is a sound investment to ensure a stable and affordable food supply,” he said.

“Conservation compliance is already the law of the land. 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.”

Providing regulatory relief for producers is another priority in the House bill, according to Lucas. “For example, our bill eliminates an extra permit requirement for the use of pesticides already federally regulated and makes certain farmers who have on-farm gasoline storage are not subject to rules designed for oil refineries. Other measures include ensuring USDA reviews EPA’s (Environmental Protection Agency’s) proposals that could harm farmers, requiring an economic review of FDA regulations, holding agencies to higher standards of scientific integrity, and addressing costs imposed on producers resulting from irresponsible lawsuits.”

“The GIPSA (Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration) rule was first proposed over three years ago, and producers I talk to still ask that this issue be put to bed once and for all,” he added.

The country of origin labeling (COOL) debate was also a key discussion point in the opening statements.

“I am hopeful that working together we can prevent the imposition of tariffs on a wide array of products important to many states,” Lucas said.

While Lucas’ plan includes finding common ground, the group’s division did come out, with target prices, conservation compliance and COOL.

The House and Senate are hoping to come to an agreement on an approximately $35 billion difference between the two bills.

Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) described her chamber’s bill as “the biggest reforms to agricultural policy in decades.”

Stabenow was among several lawmakers who want to see both farm bills reinstate disaster assistance for livestock producers. “We have seen the importance of having the disaster assistance in place.”

Divisions were regional over issues such as whether a commodity program should be based on planted acres or base acres.

Senate finance chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) questioned the argument, saying, “Tying target prices to planted acres runs the risk of ruining decades of reform.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) voiced its relief that the committee had at least begun discussions.

“With the legislation and process back in the hands of the Senate and House agriculture committee leaders and members, we are eager to do all we can to ensure the new farm bill is on the president’s desk as soon as possible this year,” the group said in a statement.

“Farm Bureau’s two overarching goals with the Senate-House conference are ensuring that permanent law is not repealed and a complete, unified farm bill continues. With this foundation, we also will be hard at work to make sure the efforts by both committees to provide safety net and risk management options that work for farmers in all regions, including those provisions across the many titles that would help livestock and specialty crop producers, are maintained.

“We know the conferees face several tough decisions on how to move forward on a unified farm bill that will pass the House and Senate when completed. AFBF is confident that the leaders and members of both committees will continue demonstrating their commitment and ability to forge a bipartisan compromise, and we are equally committed to doing our part to help them achieve this outcome. It is time to get the harvest in on the new five-year farm bill.”

More than 250 organizations sent a letter to the House and Senate agriculture committee members and leadership advocating passage as soon as possible.

The letter was sent by organizations representing farmers and ranchers, conservation, rural development, finance, forestry, energy, trade and crop insurance companies.

In the letter, the groups cautioned against ending provisions that would reinstate permanent farm law from last century. “For decades, the threat of reinstatement of the long-outdated policies of the 1938 and 1949 acts have served as strong motivation for Congress to enact new farm bills,” said the letter. “Repealing those acts and making the 2013 farm bill commodity title permanent law could make it difficult to generate sufficient political pressure to adjust the commodity safety net provisions should conditions in production agriculture change.”

The groups said they are also concerned that if Title I of the 2013 farm bill is made permanent, other important farm and rural programs covered in other titles would risk not being reauthorized if the bill expires after five years.

“If this should occur and we revert to permanent law, then programs covering conservation, forestry, research, energy, rural development, horticulture, trade, etc., could be left to the will of the appropriations process, likely with limited funding and little opportunity to update or adjust to meet changing needs in agriculture and rural communities,” said the letter.

“We also fear that a farm bill without a meaningful nutrition title will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the House and Senate to reach a bipartisan agreement on a final version that can be signed by the president,” continued the letter.

But as Chris Clayton with DTN pointed out, an agreement is still a ways off. “Like everything in Congress, farm bill talks are expected to come down to the wire. That’s partly due to the congressional schedule. The House isn’t set to be in session next week. Thus, in the rest of the year, the two chambers effectively have four remaining work weeks in which they are both set to be in session,” he wrote. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor