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Published January 12, 2012, 09:23 PM

Ag Committee chairman: ‘Horrendous’ pressure in upcoming farm bill discussions

FARGO — House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., faces a tough task of justifying and delivering an adequate farm program — anything comparable to the expiring, popular 2008 farm bill — in the midst of a tightening budget. He discussed the next steps in the farm bill discussion in front of a full Fargo conference room on Thursday as business and agriculture leaders urged him to continue programs and prevent overreach from federal regulators.

By: Mikkel Pates, Grand Forks Herald

FARGO — House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., faces a tough task of justifying and delivering an adequate farm program — anything comparable to the expiring, popular 2008 farm bill — in the midst of a tightening budget.

Lucas, who has served as chairman since 2010, came to Bismarck and Fargo on Thursday to help colleague Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., raise funds for his 2012 U.S. Senate race.

But in his first visit to the state, Lucas faced a full conference room at the Fargo Holiday Room with representatives from banking, transportation, farming and other industries all asking for ongoing farm bill support for everything from agricultural research funding to preventing overreach by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Participants urged Lucas to preserve crop insurance and other provisions as he grapples lawmakers who want to cut the budget.

He is a member of the Republican Study Committee, which is at the forefront of budget-cutting efforts, and he voted for the so-called “Ryan budget” advanced last April by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which would cut trillions in spending over the next decade.

‘Horrendous’ pressure

Leaders of the agriculture committees in the House and Senate offered a proposal to a bipartisan “supercommittee” last December, but that project ended without a compromise. Lucas says he wanted the farm bill to be passed before 2011 drought costs were added into the cost mix.

Failing that, he now predicts the farm bill will “go back to regular order” with full committee markups, followed by exposure to full floor debate. He said the proposals will likely not be “dramatically different” than those in the supercommittee’s proposal because “there are only so many ways you can reinvent the wheel.”

“If we are able to let a farm bill (pass) that achieves $23 billion in savings… we’ll be lucky people,” he said.

The budget pressure will be “horrendous” when the issue comes up again, Lucas said. He expects the Senate to move first on the farm bill, and then the House Agriculture Committee will follow.

“How far behind will we be?” he said. “I’m not sure at this moment.”

But Lucas said he would like Congress to send a bill to President Barack Obama by the fall. If that fails, he’d pass something in a lame duck session after the election.

“If I could extend the 2008 farm bill by one year, I’d hope you’d be with me, because I’d move both heaven and earth to do it and preserve the baseline,” Lucas said. “With the budget numbers being where they are, I don’t think that’s a case.”

Berg said he expects the bill to move either “slow like molasses or really fast.”

Crop insurance

Lucas is committed to a heavy focus on crop insurance, with some kind of revenue program for most crops.

Scott Tewksbury, president of Heartland State Bank of Edgeley, N.D., representing the Independent Community Banks of North Dakota, asked Lucas to continue strong support for crop insurance. He also urged Lucas to promote the Farm Service Agency loan programs, which he said are “vitally important” despite the good times in agriculture.

He said federal regulations cost his bank 30 to 40 percent of his entire overhead.

Lucas lamented that Congress is reducing the ability to cut funds for implementation of a specific regulation, ironically on grounds that the money-saving move is an “earmark,” which usually refers to pork barrel spending for a pet project.

The U.S. farm bill is moving away from direct payments, which have become politically unpopular here because the payments are made whether farmers are doing well or not. Lucas noted the rest of the world is going toward the system to be compliant with the World Trade Organization.

Berg, who is on the House Ways and Means Committee, at one point interjected, “I don’t want to get too doom-and-gloom here. Things always do eventually work out.”

Exciting time

Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary and former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer said he was “excited” by the current farm program climate because the country is being forced to contend with fiscal realities that were there during the 2008 farm bill discussion — when he was in Washington and tried to implement reforms.

Lucas noted that of 46 members on the Agriculture Committee, 23 in this session have never served on the committee before. He estimated 40 percent of the members are there because of social nutrition programs included in the farm bill, which account for 75 percent of its spending.

About 40 percent are there because of their tie to production agriculture, and another 20 percent are there because of conservation interests.

He said when the bill is considered on the House floor, a substantial number on the right won’t want to spend money for “any reason” and a substantial number on the left “are not particularly fond of spending in rural America.”

Lucas expects the bill to be subjected to more amendments than ever before because of an openness policy from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

“A good number of them will come from members who have no earthly clue what the impact will be of their language,” he said. “It’ll be a struggle.”

Berg and Lucas said agriculture is willing to do its part to control budgets, but not more than its part.

Lucas acknowledged voting in favor of Ryan’s budget last April. But asked whether he still liked the idea, Lucas simply repeated, quietly, “I voted for it.”