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Published October 24, 2011, 05:33 AM

Ag committee leaders support cuts in exchange for writing farm bill through supercommittee

WASHINGTON — The chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate agriculture committees have told the congressional supercommittee in charge of deficit reduction they will support a $23 billion reduction in the agriculture budget over 10 years in exchange for an opportunity to write a new five-year farm bill as part of the bill the supercommittee is supposed to send to Congress by Dec. 2

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate agriculture committees have told the congressional supercommittee in charge of deficit reduction they will support a $23 billion reduction in the agriculture budget over 10 years in exchange for an opportunity to write a new five-year farm bill as part of the bill the supercommittee is supposed to send to Congress by Dec. 23.

In the letter, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Senate Agriculture ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn. said they would support a cut in agriculture spending of up to $23 billion, but that they would send recommendations on how to achieve those cuts by Nov. 1. The agriculture committee leaders did not say in the letter that they want to write a new farm bill, but staff aides have been working furiously for weeks to try to prepare one and have been consulting farm lobbyists about what they would want — or at least could live with — in a new bill.

Members of Congress and farm lobbyists say they think they can better protect farm programs in the supercommittee process than in the regular order of business because the regular order might involve an open rule on the House floor, which would mean the adoption of amendments that the agriculture community would not like, and would require 60 votes in the Senate to end debate. But the need to write a new farm bill by Nov. 1 also has set off intense competition among agricultural interests, with commodity groups facing off against crop insurance interests and general farm groups divided.

The agreement and the letter were genuine and rare accomplishments in the contentious political atmosphere in Washington in which both Republicans and Democrats think they can win elections at all levels in 2012. The agriculture committees were the only ones of all the committees in Congress to reach this kind of bipartisan, bicameral agreement.

Stabenow, Roberts, Lucas and Peterson said in a joint statement, “Agriculture has a long legacy of bipartisanship and today the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are preserving that tradition. In the coming weeks, we will continue working with our House and Senate colleagues to provide the Joint Select Committee a detailed set of policy recommendations for achieving these important savings.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is the chair of the 12-member supercommittee on the Senate side, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., also is on the committee and taking a great interest in agriculture.

Making the cuts

The four ag leaders did not say how they would divide the cut, but Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said that Stabenow, Roberts, Lucas and Peterson plan to achieve the $23 billion in savings by cutting $15 billion from direct payments and $4 billion each from conservation and nutrition programs.

The process through which the four principals may lead the farm bill discussion remained a mystery. One Capitol Hill aide said he thinks the farm committee leaders are waiting “to see if the supercommittee gains traction” before announcing any plans, but that it is unlikely they would hold hearings or markups before finalizing a proposal.

Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said he is afraid that writing the farm bill through the supercommittee process, which does not allow amendments on the floor of the House or Senate, will mean the bill gets written without input from “healthy food reformers.”

While three of the four leaders have made no comments to the press beyond their joint statement, only one hour and 15 minutes after the joint statement came out, Roberts issued his own statement, saying, “I am pleased this agreement protects the crop insurance program by keeping its baseline whole, regardless of any interactions from other programs.”

The same day, the American Farm Bureau Federation sent Congress a letter questioning proposals by commodity groups that would attempt to help farmers from “shallow losses” that are not covered by crop insurance. Farm Bureau said paying farmers for losses as low as 10 to 15 percent could lead them to buy more land than they could manage or to pay too high land rents. Farm Bureau wants to maintain current farm programs including direct payments, but is willing to accept reductions in those programs.

Commodity groups’ viewpoint

Both the Roberts statement and the Farm Bureau letter alarmed commodity groups. On Oct. 19, the American Soybean Association and the National Corn Growers Association joined with the National Farmers Union to write Congress that they have strong support for a “revenue-based risk management program” to replace parts of the existing farm safety net. They also disputed Farm Bureau’s concerns about shallow losses, noting that “Under a revenue-based program, compensation for losses that exceed a certain threshold would only be made as they are incurred, on all production, and only on a portion of the loss. This stands in contrast with the current direct payment program under which farmers receive payments regardless of whether they produce a crop or incur a loss.”

Meanwhile, David Graves, a lobbyist for the American Association of Crop Insurers, said the group was pleased by Roberts’ statement because its members have been worried that some of the proposals to cover shallow losses may be duplicative and undermine use of the program. But a commodity lobbyist said that, while commodity groups oppose any further cuts in the payments made to crop insurance companies for administering the program or any cuts to premium subsidies that go to farmers, they think that if the Congressional Budget Office concludes that farmers might buy less insurance and that the government costs of the program go down, the supercommittee should be able to use those savings for budget reduction or for financing the new farm safety.

“There just happens to be a programmatic interaction,” the lobbyist said. “That is not a matter of duplication.”

While the commodity groups, the crop insurance industry and the general farm groups squabble, other groups also are trying to maintain their place in the farm bill. Sugar growers and dairy farmers want their programs in the bill, for example.

And the United Fresh Produce Association, the group that is lobbying to maintain the fresh fruit and vegetable snack program in schools, that the Agriculture Department had released an independent evaluation showing that the program increases the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables by children at participating schools by one quarter of a cup per day, or 15 percent.

“We are thrilled that this comprehensive evaluation confirms what we have seen in our visits with students, parents and school officials in FFVP schools over the last 10 years,” said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United Fresh.

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