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Published April 28, 2014, 11:16 AM

Lobbyists say farm bill passage difficult

WASHINGTON — Two key farm bill lobbyists said April 23 that the next bill might be more difficult to develop and pass, and urged advocates of all types to begin thinking about how to work together to pass another bill.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — Two key farm bill lobbyists said April 23 that the next bill might be more difficult to develop and pass, and urged advocates of all types to begin thinking about how to work together to pass another bill.

During a panel discussion at the Consumer Federation of America National Food Policy Conference, Bill O’Conner, a former House Agriculture Committee staff director and U.S. Department of Agriculture official, noted that the relationship between the farm titles and the nutrition title “have changed, and not just in one direction.”

O’Conner, now at the law firm of McLeod, Watkinson and Miller, said that in 1985 the agriculture community recognized that it needed anti-hunger advocates to collect the urban and suburban votes needed to pass the farm bill, and that anti-hunger advocates “felt they had hitched a ride on the farm bill” that got them conservative votes for their programs.

By the 1990s, O’Conner said he began to believe food programs “didn’t need the farm bill as much as when I got there.”

But with the growth of the food stamp program in 2008 and the conservative takeover of the House in 2010, he said, it’s become harder for the farm programs to carry the food programs and harder for the food programs to garner votes for the farm programs.

In 2012, O’Conner noted, the House Republican leadership wouldn’t bring the bill to the House floor because there was “no way” they would force Republicans to vote for a bill that would spend $1 trillion in 10 years, with $800 million of that going to food stamps.

In 2013, after the bill was defeated on the House floor and split in two, Republican leaders finally decided they had to put it back together again and pass it because “so many Republicans come from rural districts. They did not want to send those guys home without a farm bill for a second election.”

But O’Conner warned that there are still “grudges and bad feelings” because the $40 billion cut in food stamps over 10 years that passed the House at one point was reduced to an $8.6 billion cut, and now some governors have increased their Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program payments to $20 per year, per household to maintain food stamp benefit levels. Even if unemployment goes down to 5 percent or less, there will still be proposals to cut food stamps because it is now being discussed as welfare reform.

“The food community would be well served if a lot of Republicans retired,” O’Conner said.

Hearings on food stamps, now formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, will be productive only if there is bipartisan agreement on an approach and independent agencies such as the Government Accountability Office are asked to develop a database, he said.

O’Conner noted that rural districts have become more conservative. Years ago, he said, it would have been unthinkable for a rural member of the House to vote against a farm bill unless he did not consider the bill generous enough.

But this year, several House members from rural districts voted against it, including Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who represents one of the top agricultural districts in the country.

If Congress doesn’t change, O’Conner said, the Senate will be prepared to pass a farm bill in 2018 but the House might not be.

“There may be reasons to question whether [the farm bill] will be done the same way in the future,” and advocates who want another bill should give “serious thought” to that .

Big bills

Mary Kay Thatcher, the senior director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, noted that Congress might not pass anything else as big as the farm bill in 2014 unless it passes the Water Resources Development Act.

“We will have another farm bill,” Thatcher said. It will be difficult, she said, perhaps “incredibly difficult,” but she reminded the attendees that “every” farm bill has been difficult.

While food stamps became the most contentious issue in the farm bill, Thatcher said divisions among farm groups and the farmers’ apathy about the farm bill in 2012 and 2013 were also responsible for how long it took to pass it.

The lack of coalition-building between farm groups and nutrition groups such as the Food Research and Action Center and Feeding America occurred because money had to be cut. But Thatcher said the nutrition groups signaled they would like to find projects on which to work with the farm groups in the future.

Farm groups have to face the fact that the farm bill depends on centrist members for passage and that many of those members are retiring.

Farm Bureau’s “go-to guys are getting older and retiring, and some are going to be defeated. We are going to have to reach out to people we haven’t counted on before,” she said.

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