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Published April 23, 2012, 10:01 AM

Ag leaders want farm bill this year

WASHINGTON — The four leaders of the congressional agriculture committees presented a united front that they will work together to pass a new farm bill this year when they met with agricultural journalists on April 17.

By: Jerry Hagstrom , Agweek

WASHINGTON — The four leaders of the congressional agriculture committees presented a united front that they will work together to pass a new farm bill this year when they met with agricultural journalists on April 17.

In separate meetings with members of the North American Agricultural Journalists, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Senate Agriculture ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., all stressed that they want to get a bill done this year.

Lucas and Peterson said they want to avoid conflict over the reconciliation process affecting the farm bill, while Stabenow and Lucas announced they will produce a joint mark to be presented to the Senate Agriculture Committee on April 25.

Roberts and Stabenow also signaled that they are willing to accommodate senators from both the South and the Northern Plains, who have been less enthusiastic about the originally proposed commodity program.

Lucas said that some of the questions about spending in the bill cannot be answered until conference. Asked about energy programs and disaster programs, Lucas said, “Until the final conference report is signed, it is not prudent to suggest what things will go away. I represent a district in the Southwest. We went through a tremendous drought. I am particularly sensitive to those [disaster] programs.”

Stabenow said she and Roberts “are working extremely well together. We are going to have a joint mark for the committee.”

But she added that she does expect amendments when the markup begins April 25. She would not predict how long it will take, but noted that a recent farm bill markup took a day and a half.

Farm in the farm bill

Stabenow said there is “a tremendous amount of consensus on the majority of the bill. Conservation has very broad support. People always say we should cut down on paperwork, and this time it is happening.”

Asked whether she agrees with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s view that the bill should be called the “food, farm and jobs bill,” Stabenow said that is “a great name,”although she joked that she is tempted to call it “Debbie and Pat’s Great Adventure.”

Lucas said, however, that “It is important that you still have ‘farm’ in the farm bill. If we spend 80 percent on nutrition, then you are squeezing anything else. I want to make sure everyone meets their nutrition needs and we have sound conservation programs, but a farm bill should still have farm in it.”

Stabenow also said she is “confident” that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will find floor time for the bill even though Reid “has a lot of things to juggle.”

Roberts said April 17 that the Senate Agriculture committee “will get the bill done next week” and that he hopes that a strong majority of the committee will vote for it.

“There will be substantial reforms in the bill as we move from a direct payment system to something that is more risk based,” Stabenow said.

“We have different needs and different regions of the country. Southerners have different challenges than friends on the Northern Plains than others in the middle. Those are things we are working through right now.”

All four leaders acknowledged that they believe the new bill may be more trade-distorting than the previous bill.

“Clearly, direct payments are the least market distorting, and from the economic perspective, the least trade distorting, but unfortunately we live in an environment where between our colleagues and in the national media they have taken on the direct payments as the ultimate terrible of all terrible,” Lucas said.

“If we have to step away from the old direct payments, whatever else we adopt I fear perhaps unintentionally will have that effect.”

On the question of whether the GSM 102 program would be continued, Lucas said, “We are looking at everything. But people I deal with, including media, don’t seem to care that much about trade implications. That is unfortunate.”

As chairman, he added, he does not decide the way the committee or the House goes, but attempts to steer them.

WTO violations

All four principals said they are concerned about violating World Trade Organization standards, particularly on the proposed cotton program. But Stabenow also said, “We’ve got to be fair to the cotton growers.”

All four principals also defended crop insurance and said they would try to extend it to other crops rather than cut it.

Some critics have said they are worried that raising the target prices may cause farmers to change planting decisions, but Lucas said the issue of raising target prices goes to the heart of whether the farm bill is national in scope, because rice and peanut farmers must have a program that works for them.

Peterson said he is in favor of raising target prices. Roberts has criticized the idea, saying he does not want states to become monocultures as they were before the Freedom to Farm program was started in 1996, but he signaled he is now more flexible on the issue.

Stabenow said she has “not drawn a firm line in the sand” on target prices. “We are trying to look at what works.”

Asked about fears that a higher wheat target price might mean less barley production, Peterson said he favors raising the barley target price higher than proposed. He said the United States has lost barley production because the safety net is inadequate.

Quaker Oats complained about a loss of oats production, he said. But when he proposed raising the target price, executives said they didn’t want to pay more for oats, Peterson said, adding that the company must now buy oats from Canada.

The four leaders also seemed to be satisfied with the proposed dairy program, even though dairy processors are not.

“Keep in mind the dairy folks have had the toughest 10 years, compared to livestock, compared to grain,” Lucas said. “It is easy to understand why they want to do something different.”

Peterson said that the International Dairy Foods Association is getting 80 percent of what it wanted in the bill and that if “you get 80 percent of what you want you should declare victory.”

On energy programs, Stabenow said there might be a small amount of mandatory spending, but that most of those programs would be authorized subject to appropriations.

There is still likely to be a major conflict over food stamps, the Agriculture Department’s biggest program, with the Democratic-controlled Senate less likely to cut that program by as much as the Republican-controlled House. The House Agriculture Committee on April 18 passed a measure to cut food stamps by $35 billion over 10 years, but that measure is highly unlikely to become law because the Senate will not take up a budget resolution this year and both bodies must pass the resolution for it to go into effect.

But House Agriculture Democrats will oppose a big cut in food stamps — formally known as the supplemental nutrition assistance program or SNAP — when the farm bill comes up.

“That is a legitimate fight, it is shooting with real bullets,” Peterson said.

Stabenow also told the journalists that her chairman’s mark will include a provision that will prevent the states from making small payments for low-income heating and energy assistance to SNAP beneficiaries that allows them to qualify for higher food stamp benefits.

“We are looking at what has been a low error rate and want to it make even lower,” Stabenow said. “We will focus on fraud and abuse. That provision on LIHEAP needs to be modified.”

“SNAP is in many ways like crop insurance,” Stabenow said. “It goes up and down based on need. Because of the horrendous economy, we have seen food assistance go up. People are mortified they need help. The focus is to make sure not a dollar goes where it should not.”

The Food Research and Action Center and other anti-hunger groups oppose the cut and favor extending higher level benefits included in the Recovery Act beyond their current expiration in 2012.

In a discussion of the Senate and House schedules, Roberts had the last word. Asked whether he wished he could be at a House Agriculture Committee hearing April 20 in his old district in Dodge City, Kan., Roberts said, “We’ll be here writing a farm bill, while they’ll be there having a hearing.”

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