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Published November 15, 2013, 11:14 AM

Boehner: No farm bill savings in budget

Farm bill conference negotiations appeared to be moving along last week, but House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, threw a wild card into the process on Nov. 14 when he told reporters he does not want any budget savings in the farm bill used in the attempt to reach a larger House-Senate agreement on the budget.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — Farm bill conference negotiations appeared to be moving along last week, but House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, threw a wild card into the process on Nov. 14 when he told reporters he does not want any budget savings in the farm bill used in the attempt to reach a larger House-Senate agreement on the budget.

Aides to farm bill conferees are working in a positive, bipartisan atmosphere and are trying to maintain that by not negotiating in the press, a congressional aide with a knowledge of the situation told Agweek.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who also chairs the conference, said the Senate conferees have “finally come around to the fact that you have to have a safety net that works not just for the Midwest, but for everybody else,” apparently meaning that they will agree to both the shallow loss and target price-based programs.

But Lucas said the House wants farmers to be forced to choose one program and stick with it for five years, while the Senate wants the farmers to be able to move between the programs within that time period. That would mean the rates farmers would be guaranteed would be lower, Lucas said.

Lucas also noted there are still disagreements over the dairy program because the House leadership does not want to include what dairy farmers call a market stabilization program and processors call supply management because it would encourage farmers to produce less milk when prices are low.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Agweek the fact that the dairy program from the 1949 permanent farm law would go into effect on Jan. 1 and raise milk prices is one of the main reasons Congress needs to finish the farm bill by Dec. 31.

“The dairy cliff is no myth,” Vilsack said. “People play with fire if this doesn’t get done before the end of the year.”

The conferees do not yet appear to have addressed the issue of widest public concern: a cut to the food stamp program.

At his weekly news conference on Nov. 14, a reporter asked Boehner the following question:

“Mr. Speaker, there is between $20 (billion) and $30 billion in budget savings in the farm bill, depending upon which version gets ultimately written. Do you favor using that savings toward deficit reduction in the budget agreement or should it be kept separate?”

Boehner responded: “I think it is a separate issue, and I have made that very clear to Chairman Ryan,” a reference to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Boehner provided no further details, and the statement has left the agricultural community debating its impact.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who has said the farm bill and the budget agreement could be tied together, had no comment, and neither did Lucas nor House ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

Only Senate Agriculture ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., had something to say.

“Our goal is to come up with a responsible conference report that can pass the House and Senate,” Cochran said. “We have always done our work knowing that we would create significant budget savings. How those savings are applied or counted, and whether the bill is somehow paired with other legislation, will be a leadership decision.”

Vilsack told reporters that “the speaker ought to hop on board” the campaign to use savings from the farm bill mandatory accounts to reach a budget agreement.

The secretary said the U.S. Department of Agriculture can’t handle any more cuts to discretionary spending accounts such as agricultural research.

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