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Published May 13, 2013, 10:41 AM

Focus on a farm bill

The Democratic-controlled Senate wants to make a small cut in food stamps, and Stabenow is likely to propose a cut of about $4 billion over 10 years, while the Republican-controlled House wants a much bigger cut.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — After months of inaction, The Senate and House agriculture committees are both expected to consider a new farm bill the same week.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., announced weeks ago that his committee would consider the bill — a process known as markup — on May 15. More recently, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., announced that her committee would markup the bill on May 14.

The two committees have such different approaches, particularly on the level of funding for food stamps, that each wants to put its proposal before the public.

While crop insurance and farm programs remain the focus of the farm bill, food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, cost almost $79 billion in fiscal year 2012 and makes up more than 70 percent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture budget.

The Democratic-controlled Senate wants to make a small cut in food stamps, and Stabenow is likely to propose a cut of about $4 billion over 10 years, while the Republican-controlled House wants a much bigger cut. Lucas has said he will propose a cut of $20 billion over 10 years, while other members of his committee want to cut the program by $36 billion or more.

If the bills end up passing the House and the Senate, the differences in food stamp cuts are likely to be the biggest issues in the conference before a final bill could be sent to the House and Senate. Congress is under pressure to finish the bill before the extension of the 2008 farm bill expires on Sept. 30.

Since both the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee passed farm bills last year, the new bills are likely to be similar to those. Both House and Senate farm leaders have pledged to protect crop insurance, which is now the biggest farm program.

But fiscal conservatives and President Obama have proposed cutting the level of insurance premium subsidies for farmers who make more than $750,000. But a wide range of farm and conservation groups reached agreement recently on a proposal that would require farmers getting subsidized crop insurance to comply with conservation rules in exchange for no income restrictions on the premium subsidies.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Association of Conservation Districts and others have hailed that compromise, but the Environmental Working Group and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said the conservation provisions are not strong enough.

2012’s bills

Last year, the Senate commodity title, based on a program to make payments to farmers for losses not covered by crop insurance, pleased only northern corn and soybean growers. But this year, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is the highest ranking Republican and the bill is likely to include a target price-based program that peanut, rice and southern wheat growers favor.

The House bill last year included both programs and is likely to be similar. Cotton is handled under a separate program designed to address the issues in the World Trade Organization cotton case that the United States lost to Brazil. Both the House and the Senate will face the issue of developing a safety net that can work within their budgets.

Stabenow is also a champion of the fruit and vegetable industry, and the Senate bill will contain a strong program to help those industries, as well as smaller farmers and farmers’ markets.

Both bills are also expected to reauthorize the sugar program, create a new dairy program, simplify conservation programs and create a new undersecretary for trade at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to push exports.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he would like to bring the bill to the Senate floor in May, but that may slip to June. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who kept the bill from coming to the floor last year, has said the House will take it up this summer.

Political analysts have said the Republicans paid a price at the ballot box for not finishing the bill before the 2008 election and that they do not want to anger farmers before the 2014 midterm elections.

Floor fights are expected over food stamps, crop insurance, the dairy program and the sugar program.