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Published November 01, 2013, 03:53 PM

Signs of cooperation in farm bill conference, but disagreements remain

House and Senate farm bill conferees sounded like they wanted to reach agreement at their first meeting on Oct. 30, but major conflicts still remain.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — House and Senate farm bill conferees sounded like they wanted to reach agreement at their first and what might be their only public meeting on Oct. 30, but major conflicts still remain over food stamps, the commodity title, conservation compliance for crop insurance, the dairy program, country of origin labeling and the future of a law regarding the Packers and Stockyards Act.

The House and Senate have both passed new farm bills, and the work of the conference committee is to come to agreement on a combined bill known as a conference report that can be passed by a majority of both houses and that President Barack Obama will be willing to sign.

At a session lasting more than two hours, all 41 farm bill conferees had an opportunity to make opening statements for 3 minutes. In a sign that they want to cooperate, almost of all them kept to that time limit, which was set by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who is chairing the conference.

“We face daunting challenges; we are working in a complicated environment; we have to draft a very technical bill,” Lucas said.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., noted that the conference gives the agriculture committees “an unprecedented opportunity to show how to govern.”

Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., noted that the extension of the 2008 farm bill expired on Sept. 30 and urged the conference to work quickly.

“We’re going to lose our credibility if we don’t get this bill done,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., a former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. “We have to get this bill done.”

The wrong thing to do

There has been talk of combining the farm bill with a budget bill to get it through Congress, but House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told reporters he will insist that the farm bill be considered as a stand-alone measure.

“I might as well retire and go home if they’re going to put the farm bill in another bill,” he said. “It’s the wrong thing to do.

“If the farm bill is combined with other legislation now, the next time it comes up the House leadership will want to start with a combination,” Peterson said.

Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., both spoke about the need to re-establish the Livestock Indemnity Program in light of the recent blizzard that killed tens of thousands of cattle in the two states, although there doesn’t seem to be much controversy about that.

Hoeven said the sugar program needs to be continued. Both bills contain the sugar program, which means the issue should not be subject to debate, but candy makers have been complaining that U.S. sugar prices make them uncompetitive. The American Sugar Alliance, which represents the beet and cane growers, has said sugar is a small percentage of the cost of candy and that changing the program would make the U.S. more dependent on foreign sugar.

Crop insurance concerns

Disagreements remain over provisions in the Senate bill that would reduce crop insurance premium subsidies by 15 percentage points for farmers who make more than $750,000 and require farmers who get crop insurance to comply with federal conservation standards.

Roberts and Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, laid out the basic arguments facing conferees on the new farm program. The Senate bill’s primary commodity program provides “shallow loss” payments to cover losses not covered by crop insurance, but also contains a target price program to appeal to rice and peanut growers, while the House bill includes the shallow loss option, but puts major emphasis on a target price program with higher target prices for all program crops. The House bill also would make payments to farmers on their current planted acres up to their historic base rather than just on the base.

Roberts opposes target prices and said, “A modern farm bill should not create planting, marketing or international trade distortions. Let me be clear … target prices should be decoupled … and the government should not set prices at a level that practically guarantees profit, instead of acting as a risk management tool.”

But Conaway, who chairs the House subcommittee in charge of commodities and favors the House bill said, “Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about planting distortions … nobody at this table is talking about going back to pre-1996 when farmers had to plant for the farm bill,” he said. “They also ought to know that the House and Senate farm bills both use planted acres while capping them at different levels. By now, they should also be aware that the approach used by the House is the same approach used under the current ACRE program.

“Why are both chambers taking this approach? Because we are tired of defending charges that we are paying farmers on crops they do not grow or paying people who are not even farming,” Conaway said.

Conaway added that using planted acres for payments would only lead one-tenth of 1 percent of farmers to change their planting decisions and argued that the Senate program does not comply more with the World Trade Organization rules than the House program.

Peterson said he now has the votes to prevail on the dairy policy that he and dairy farmers prefer.

“I might have to bulldoze that one. I have the votes,” Peterson said, referring to the opposition from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Asked why he believed he has the votes now, when the House added an amendment offered by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., to take out what dairy farmers call market stabilization and processors call supply management, Peterson said, “I’ve been working on it.”

Peterson said the Goodlatte dairy program “won’t work.”

The choice, he said, will be the Dairy Security Act he has written and that is in the Senate bill or current law.

Lobbying on dairy continues, however. The National Milk Producers Federation, which represents the dairy farmers, sent conferees a letter Oct. 30 urging them to support Peterson, while the International Dairy Foods Association and a consumer coalition including the Consumer Federation of America sent a letter urging them to oppose his program.

COOL

The House bill also contains a provision for a study of the impact of the country-of-origin labeling for red meat law known as COOL that could be converted into a provision to make major changes to that law.

Lucas said at the conference meeting that he hopes the conference can “prevent the imposition of tariffs on a wide array of products important to many states” and other members such as Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., and House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce, R-Calif., said they agree with him.

The COOL issue is the subject of heated lobbying at the moment. The American Meat Institute and other industry groups are encouraging the conferees to change the law, while the National Farmers Union, the Consumer Federation of America and other groups say the current law should be left in the hands of the Obama administration to implement.

The House bill would also repeal a provision in the 2008 bill that gives the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration increased authority to enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act, and Lucas said at the conference he backs it. But other members want to keep it.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said he would defend his provision in the House bill that would make it unlawful for any state to forbid the sale of foods produced in another state because of disagreements over production methods.

King acknowledged he wrote the amendment because California passed a law to forbid the sale of eggs produced in cages for hens smaller than those used in that state.

The King amendment, Costa said, is “not only anti-California, but if you think about it, it sets up a one-size-fits-all policy to be determined in Washington.”

The single biggest issue facing the conference may be the cut in the size of the food stamp program, which is formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and takes up more than 70 percent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget.

Lucas has said that Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will have to settle that issue, and it is likely to be the last agreement reached on the bill.

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