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Published January 27, 2014, 02:08 PM

House vote on farm bill expected Wednesday

House and Senate agriculture leaders today are wrapping up a deal on a farm bill that will raise target prices for grains with payments made on base acres, include a new dairy program that is not considered supply management, and payment limitation rules that do not please critics and will not make any changes to country-of-origin labeling for red meat or changes to the Packers and Stockyards Act.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

House and Senate agriculture leaders today are wrapping up a deal on a farm bill that will raise target prices for grains with payments made on base acres, include a new dairy program that is not considered supply management, and payment limitation rules that do not please critics and will not make any changes to country-of-origin labeling for red meat or changes to the Packers and Stockyards Act.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., released the bill today and a vote on it is expected Wednesday morning in the House of Representatives, with Senate action to follow.

But for that to happen a majority of conferees in the House and Senate would have to sign it. The leaders decided not to hold a final public meeting to deal with contentious issues.

The bill will save $24 billion, part of which will presumably go to payments in lieu of taxes for communities in Western states surrounded by federal lands. There appear to be no last-minute scoring issues, as there have been on previous farm bills.

The commodity title provisions are basically those in the House-passed version of the bill, except that payments will be made on 86 percent of base acres rather than acres in current production. That means a combination of the Average Crop Revenue program known as ARC favored by the Senate and the Price Loss Coverage favored by the House, with the higher target prices in the House bill.

The nutrition title will cut about $8 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, by requiring states to make at least a $20-per-year payment to people in order to trigger an increased SNAP payment.

The bill will also forbid food stamps for lottery winners and restrict food stamps for college students, issues championed by Stabenow. A work requirement pilot project is also included, providing states about $200 million to start these programs.

The bill also increases funding for food banks by $205 million.

Changes to dairy provision

The dairy issue has been resolved, with the House position on the dairy title prevailing “with some changes,” a congressional aide said.

House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and dairy farmers have warned the bill would make the new insurance program unpopular without a provision to discourage overproduction that would continue to trigger payments when prices are low.

“Supply management won’t be in it,” said a GOP aide in reference to the objections of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to the Senate version of the dairy title.

A key lobbyist told Agweek that Boehner appears ready to whip the bill so that is certain to pass the House. The lobbyist said that the defeat of the first House bill on the floor had been a wake-up call for the Republicans because so many rural Republicans were disgusted that a bill that meant so much to them and their constituents had failed because of a lack of Republican votes.

The rural Republicans’ unhappiness at the leadership’s performance was expressed at fundraisers, the lobbyist said. The subsequent passage of the separate farm bill and nutrition bills with only Republican votes and passage of the measure that put the two bills back together for conference purposes showed that Boehner and Cantor can whip their membership when they are motivated to do so, the lobbyist said.

COOL for red meat

Meanwhile, major meat groups said today they will oppose the bill because they are disappointed it does not contain provisions to alter the country-of-origin labeling for red meat rules or to restrict implementation of a provision in the 2008 farm bill to alter the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s implementation of the Packers and Stockyards Act.

In a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture committees, the groups said they “appreciate all of your efforts to resolve the many contentious issues where compromises were found to bring this farm bill close to the finish line,” but “we must express our deep disappointment with the decision to exclude language that was in the House-passed version of the bill on the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Act (GIPSA), the Conaway-Costa amendment.

“If included,” the letter continued, “the Conaway-Costa amendment would have refocused the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regulation on the five specific areas of contraction, as Congress directed in the 2008 farm bill. As well as restoring congressional intent, this language was included in four appropriations bills (including 2014) and signed by the president.

“We are also disappointed that a WTO-compliant resolution to mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) was not reached, particularly in the face of retaliatory actions by the governments of Mexico and Canada,” the letter added.

“This retaliation will be crippling to our industries and threaten the long-term relationship with two of our most important export markets. COOL is a broken program that has only added costs to our industries without any measurable benefit for America’s livestock producers. The coalition represented below offered many solutions and all were rejected.”

The groups — the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Turkey Federation and the North American Meat Association —added that they “will actively oppose final passage of the farm bill, if these issues are not addressed.”

A congressional source close to the negotiations signaled that members of Congress would not be sympathetic to the meat industry’s position.

“It would be astounding if these lobbyists opposed the bill, given that the final provides substantial, permanent disaster relief for livestock producers,” the source said.

Livestock disaster relief

The final bill contains nearly $5 billion in livestock disaster relief, with a permanent baseline for the first time, with the aid going back to 2011, the source said, adding, “There’s no other stakeholder group that went from zero to $5 billion with permanent baseline in a bill that cuts billions of dollars.”

The source also noted that the bill contains a 60 percent “carve out” amounting to $1.6 billion for the livestock industry annually in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

Neither the House bill nor the Senate bill contained a measure to repeal COOL, the source added, and the Senate has accepted a House provision for a COOL study.

Jess Peterson, a lobbyist for the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association which opposed changes to both COOL and GIPSA, said that although he has been unable to confirm details, that his members “greatly appreciate’ the work of the lead negotiators “to pass a clean farm bill without various divisive amendments.”

Peterson urged passage of the bill.

“Farmers and ranchers need a five-year bill that implements key programs,” Peterson said. “This has been a long and difficult process. Producing the bill in this fashion ensures passage and implementation.”

The National Farmers Union accused the meat industry of trying to hold the farm bill hostage even though it provides a lot of benefit to that industry and producers.

“NFU strongly disagrees with this letter and supports the livestock provisions in the emerging farm bill, which are beneficial to family farmers and ranchers,” National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said in a news release. “The groups that signed the letter do not represent farmers and ranchers. They represent the vertically integrated packers, and they clearly do not have the interests of family farmers and ranchers in mind.”

Payment limitations

Meanwhile, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition expressed disappointment over the apparent deal on payment limitations.

In a statement late Sunday, NSAC, which represents small, environmentally oriented farmers, said that it is the group’s understanding that “instead of a $50,000 annual limit on the primary payments (or double that for married couples), the lead negotiators have decided instead on a $125,000 limit (again, doubled for married couples).

“In other words, they have increased the House and Senate-passed bipartisan agreement by 150 percent, an egregious increase showing profound disrespect for the democratic process and the normal rules of Congress that make identical provisions passed by both bodies not open to change in a House-Senate conference.”

NSAC also noted that the lead negotiators have apparently decided to leave decisions on who would be considered actively engaged in agriculture up to USDA.

“Granted the same authority by the 2008 farm bill, the Obama administration decided to keep the current loopholes intact, providing little prospect that anything would prove different the second time around the same block,” NSAC said.

“If the rumors circulating today prove true, the result will be an uncapped, unlimited entitlement that will continue to be riddled with fraud and abuse and continue to waste taxpayers money, transferring government subsidies from less well off taxpayers to mega farms with huge assets and high incomes, while putting rank and file family farmers at a artificial government-sanctioned competitive disadvantage and shutting beginning farmers out of the land market,” NSAC said.

The group urged the rest of the conferees to reject the deal as a “perversion of democracy.”

On Sunday, another lobbyist told Agweek that at this point, all groups need to give up on their “pet” provisions so the bill can be passed. No agriculture group, he said, got everything it wanted.