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Published April 18, 2011, 06:00 AM

Farm bill target date: 2012

WASHINGTON — The leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees plan to write the 2012 farm bill on an expedited schedule next year, and to send it to President Obama for his signature before the fall election, but the writing processes in the two chambers will be very different, they said in a series of interviews April 12.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees plan to write the 2012 farm bill on an expedited schedule next year, and to send it to President Obama for his signature before the fall election, but the writing processes in the two chambers will be very different, they said in a series of interviews April 12.

Lobbyists have questioned whether Congress can finish a farm bill in one year, but House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., told the North American Agricultural Journalists, “This is more likely to be a quicker one than a longer one.”

Some Republicans have suggested putting off the final bill until 2013 when a Republican president might be in office, but Lucas hinted that farmers are more likely to get a better bill when a president is facing re-election. Lucas said that, while he doesn’t consider the Obama White House oriented toward agriculture, the Bush White House didn’t focus on the issue either. Bush signed a farm bill before in 2002 when he was facing re-election, but didn’t sign it in 2008 when he was a lame duck and Congress had to pass it over his veto, Lucas noted.

“We are better off to give the president a chance to sign a good farm bill before he goes out to the countryside,” Lucas added.

Senate bill

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who has declined to set a deadline for finishing the bill, said April 12 that it is her intention to write a 2012 bill.

Senate Agriculture ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said, “We’ll write it in 2012.”

Meanwhile, House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told the journalists he considers the budget proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to be so hard on agriculture and food stamps and so unrealistic that he is planning to work with Stabenow and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., on the Senate version of the bill.

“My intention is to work with the Senate because that is something that can pass and the president can sign,” Peterson said. “I think the Senate should move first. Conrad will put together a budget. I would like the Senate to do the bill before the House writes it.”

Peterson also proposes that the bill not be considered until the March 2012 Congressional Budget Office numbers are released and the 2013 budget resolution is considered.

Roberts, who chaired the House committee when the 1996 farm bill was written, praised Ryan for writing a bold budget proposal, but said, “The House budget will have a bearing on the Senate, but the Senate will pass its own bill.”

Roberts said he and Stabenow agree that the Senate Agriculture Committee should do the job of making any cuts in the bill. While farm and commodity groups are “in the same church” now, Robert said, he acknowledged it would take time to achieve consensus after cuts are made and changes are proposed.

In separate sessions with the journalists, Lucas, Stabenow and Roberts emphasized opposite points that added up to the same reality: the young House committee needs time, while the more experienced Senate committee will move forward.

Lucas said the House Agriculture Committee is so inexperienced that members need a year to get to know each other and learn about agriculture before they write the bill. He noted that 23 of the 46 members on his committee never have served on the committee before and that of his 26 Republican members, 16 are in their first term in Congress.

“We have tough budget choices to be made next year, and I need a year for the committee to get to know each other,” he said.

More hearings planned

After holding a series of oversight hearings on the Agriculture Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Lucas said he intends to start field hearings this fall.

Lucas said that he does not want to finish the bill until after the Congressional Budget Office releases the 10-year forecast in March 2012 and Congress takes up the 2012 budget resolution because he hopes that the federal budget may be in better shape next year. Lucas said he has discussed the schedule with Stabenow and realizes that the Senate “might go ahead of us. That’s fine. I’ve got to have a year to get ready.”

Stabenow and Roberts said the Senate Agriculture Committee is heavy with experienced members, including Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., a former agriculture secretary, and several former chairmen, and that it will proceed on its own.

Stabenow said the Senate may well begin writing the bill before the House, but that “we won’t necessarily conclude before the House.” She was forced to cancel the first Senate farm bill hearing, scheduled in Michigan for April 9, because Congress still was working on the continuing resolution late April 8.

Stabenow said she does not share Lucas’ optimism that the situation will improve.

“I’m not so sure the budget will get better next year,” she said.

Lucas noted that the 2008 farm bill that expires in 2012 is so popular that if the farmers in his geographically huge Oklahoma district had their choice, they would “scratch out 2012 and write in 2017” as a new expiration date. However, he noted, a simple extension is not possible because there are programs with a cost of $8 billion to $9 billion that do not have baseline funding.

“Next year, we’ll have really tough choices. That’s what the legislative process is about,” Lucas said.

Top priorities

Lucas said the bill would be structured the same as in the past with a “three-legged stool”— commodity, conservation and nutrition programs — to assemble the farm-to-table coalition that is needed to pass it. Other titles of the bill, including research and rural development, will be important he said, but the traditional core titles still would be the top priority.

Wheat prices are high right now, Lucas said, but they could be lower in a year. Although there have been pressures to end the direct payments that crop farmers get whether prices are high or low, Lucas said he would not propose any cuts this year.

“If we step away from a program now, the budgetary wolves will carve up that money,” he said.

Lucas also said he wants to continue the Conservation Reserve Program, which idles cropland for environmental reasons, at the current level of 32 million acres. It’s OK if market forces lead landowners to put less land in the CRP, Lucas said, but he wants it in place in case farmers want to use it.

The ideological extremes within the committee — from Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who favors nutrition programs, to Republicans elected with Tea Party backing — may be wider than in the past, Lucas acknowledged, but he said he thinks a year of working together will help build the “comity” needed to pass the bill.

Providing a hint of internal debates, Lucas described the House Republicans as “an idealistic group” that needs a year of “tempering.” Lucas also seemed to warn his fellow Republicans about ideological purity. The 2010 election was a “telling tale of what a party’s policy can do to members,” Lucas said, adding that the Democrats’ cap-and- trade policy was “devastating” at election time.

Although the Ryan budget makes suggestions to cut direct payments, crop insurance, food stamps and conservation programs, Lucas said he has told the House leadership “to give me the number and let us decide the policy.”

Peterson, who chaired the committee during the writing of the 2008 farm bill, said he is supporting direct payments, a program popular with Southerners, “to get a bill we can live with.” However, he said the House budget proposal contains such tough cuts he does not believe a House-passed bill will become law.

Determining cuts

Peterson said the baseline for the farm bill for the next 10 years would be about $763 billion, and that Ryan wants to cut $177 billion, which would mean the total spending would be $586 billion. Of Ryan’s $177 billion cuts, $30 billion would come from direct payments and crop insurance and $127 billion from food stamps, with additional cuts from conservation programs.

Peterson said he does not think Congress will cut the food stamp budget by $127 billion. Ryan has suggested turning food stamps — now known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP — into a block grant to the states, an idea Congress rejected when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., proposed it in 1995.

Peterson said he thinks the Senate Budget Committee will cut commodity programs by $15 billion, but will add back in $5 billion for a disaster program so that the cut will really be only $10 billion.

Peterson said he will not support the House budget and probably not support a Democratic alternative budget. Peterson added that he does not think there is “any chance” the House and Senate budgets will be reconciled. If the budgets from the two chambers are not reconciled, he added, the House bill will allow Ryan to “deem” the House-passed budget to be the budget under which the House will work.

Peterson said he is willing to consider reductions in the agriculture budget as long as they are in line with cuts to other programs. In his view, he said, Ryan has not cut defense, even though Defense Secretary Robert Gates has proposed cuts in foreign aid, which voters have told pollsters should be cut.

Recalling the $12 billion in cuts to crop insurance programs through the 2008 farm bill and the renegotiation of the standard reinsurance agreement, Peterson said, “We’ve done reductions we’re probably not going to get any credit for.”

Peterson also said that the Ryan budget would not allow Congress to extend the 2008 farm bill unless it included the $177 billion in cuts or the budget rules were suspended.

If a new bill is not passed and the 2008 bill is not extended, the 1949 farm law, which has been suspended by each current farm bill for decades, would become law again. That prospect is totally impractical because it would put very high target prices in place for crops and require farmers to plant the crops they planted in the 1950s.

“We’re not going to go to the ’49 act,” Roberts said.

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