Standing by agriculture
OMAHA, Neb. -- House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said March 4 that he will run for re-election, partly because he is not sure that Congress will finish a farm bill in 2012 and he wants to be on hand for writing it.
Speaking on the sidelines of the National Farmers Union convention in Omaha, Neb., Peterson also said he still hopes Congress will write the bill this year before the election. Some lobbyists have said that it will be difficult to write the bill in an election year, but Peterson reminded reporters that "the 2008 farm bill was done in a presidential election year."
Peterson, 67, told Agweek that he had considered retiring this year.
"I don't want to be 80 years old and be in Congress," he said, adding that he can't guarantee he will run for another term after the coming one, but that he is set to run this fall.
Peterson also said he had met recently with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., to ask them to follow his lead on the farm bill. Peterson said Pelosi and Hoyer expressed surprise that he felt it necessary to ask whether he had their support as the leader on agriculture and assured him that he is in charge as he was in 2008.
Peterson also said that he told Pelosi and Hoyer it would not be possible to raise food stamp benefit levels, and added he is afraid that House liberals, who dominate the Democratic minority since so many rural Democrats were defeated, will push for an increase.
In a speech to the Farmers Union, Peterson said he keeps hearing "a rumbling" that House Republican freshmen may try to cut $100 billion from the food stamp program over 10 years. "The Senate won't go for that," he added.
In the speech, Peterson said that reapportionment has made life in Washington "just a little bit harder for those of us who represent rural America." But he said even though the country is divided and the atmosphere in Washington is not conducive to getting things done, the agriculture committee has proved "we've avoided that so far" by being the only committee to send a bipartisan letter to the supercommittee in charge of deficit reduction.
Peterson said he believes that proposal will form the basis of the farm bill and that there will be action on a bill in both the Senate and the House in the next few months. The Congressional Budget Office will release its new baseline figures on March 13, he noted, while Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., will hold a farm bill hearing on the commodity title on March 14, and likely will move toward a markup shortly after that.
Sequence of events
He said he thinks that after the Senate Agriculture Committee finishes a bill, the House Agriculture Committee will write one. Then the full Senate will take up a bill, followed by the House.
Peterson said he is certain that Stabenow, House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., all want to finish a bill. There have been concerns that Senate Republicans wanted to delay it, but Peterson said no one has told him that personally.
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., is now "very fired up" and told him he wants to get the bill out of committee by Easter, Peterson said, adding that he considers that schedule "a little optimistic."
Peterson said he thinks that the cut in the farm bill that the committees "are going to start with" will be the $23 billion over 10 years proposed to the supercommittee.
Last year the House passed a budget calling for a $48 billion cut in farm programs, but Peterson said that budget "has no impact" and that he now doubts that House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., will be able to get a budget through the House before the farm bill moves.
Legally Congress could write a farm bill using the baseline with no cut, but he added that trying to bring up a bill with no cuts "would be a problem."
The Farmers Union has been critical of the dairy title that Peterson has written in conjunction with the National Milk Producers Federation, but he told convention goers that he thinks the dairy proposal is "all set," and that he is not sure Farmers Union members realize that the margin insurance in his proposal would be sold by the Farm Service Agency rather than insurance companies, and would more heavily subsidize producers with 325 or fewer cows.
"It's a pretty good deal," Peterson said. "I hope it will take volatility out of the market."
There is still division over the commodity title, Peterson acknowledged, but said he believes there will have to be three programs -- higher target prices, a shallow or catastrophic loss program and a separate program for cotton. The northerners will take the shallow or catastrophic loss program, while the southerners take the cotton or higher target prices, he said.
Peterson acknowledged that soybean growers are worried that higher target prices will affect planting decisions, but he said, "Nobody is going to plant based on these target prices." He added that the American Farm Bureau Federation might have a point that people would be more likely to put marginal land into production.
But he signaled that congressional patience will be limited.
"If commodity groups can't come together, we'll bring them together," he said.