Farm bill conferees hoping for House approval today

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



As the House prepares to debate today and likely approve a five-year farm bill, several lawmakers and agricultural groups weighed in on the agreement that would eliminate direct payments in favor of enhanced crop insurance, revise commodity supports, create a new dairy program, and make several other changes to agricultural policy.

While passage is not completely a foregone conclusion in the House, top farm bill conferees expressed confidence they have the votes to finally move a bill. Their statements are buffeted by the support of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Still, the Chairmen hit a bit of a fiscal road bump Tuesday night, when the Congressional Budget Office released the official farm bill score estimating that enacting the legislation would lower budget deficits by $16.6 billion - not the $23 billion in savings touted by conferees. However, the CBO score does not reflect the impact of the sequester, which dropped the baseline by $6.4 billion over ten years. And staff members were quick to point out that, when you add the $6.4 billion to the CBO score, the $23 billion figure stands up to scrutiny.

In total, CBO estimates that direct spending for authorized programs would total $956 billion over 10 years, of which $756 billion would be for nutrition programs. CBO said it estimates that Title I of the current bill would reduce spending on commodity programs by $14.3 billion over 10 years - between $3 billion and $4 billion less than under the House- and Senate-passed bills. The latest bill would reduce nutrition spending by $8 billion over 10 years, CBO said, and the provisions on crop insurance would increase costs by $5.7 billion.

Together we can feed the Bees"

In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., reaching an agreement on the nearly $1 trillion bill is “almost a miracle.” “We're on the verge of doing something historic,” Lucas said.

Lucas touted the end to direct payments, saying much of the savings from that have been “plowed into” crop insurance.

On one of the most contentious issues - dairy policy, Lucas said the “three magic words” were “no supply management.” The bill would end the Dairy Product Price Support Program and the Milk Income Loss Contract, replacing them with a margin insurance program.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said, “Between the commodity title and crop insurance, we have addressed the needs [of every region].” Among other notable issues, Stabenow noted the bill includes a permanent livestock assistance program and increased support for beginning farmers.

Both lawmakers said they expect the bill to be approved in both chambers, and said President Obama supports the language.

Still, an approximate $8 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) generated mostly by restrictions on the definition of “categorical eligibility” for the program and reductions in the number of waivers from work requirements available for certain adult SNAP recipients, are likely to prompt some heated debate on the House floor.

Farm bill conferee Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., told Agri-Pulse Tuesday that he will vote against the bill because of the cuts, which he said essentially puts deficit reduction on the backs of poor people. McGovern said that he will oppose the bill even though the cut is significantly lower than the $40 billion reduction sought by many House Republicans. “I'm not a cheap date,” McGovern said.

Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., said while the bill is not perfect, he was pleased that it includes a provision to amend the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program to offer coverage for crops producing feedstock for energy purposes. The amendment, he said, also would direct USDA to research and develop risk management tools promising new sorghum crops.

Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., said they praised a provision that would allow the Forest Service to lease up to five new modern large air tankers to combat wildfires. “In Colorado and throughout the West, any additional tools or resources to help fight wildfires are extremely valuable,” Bennet said. “They help save property and lives.”

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, urged lawmakers to approve the bill.

“They had many tough decisions to make, but were able to move forward with a solid bill that includes many Farm Bureau-supported provisions,” Stallman said. “We are particularly pleased with provisions to provide risk management to fruit and vegetable farmers and to support livestock farmers during disasters.”

The National Farmers Union sent a letter today to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, urging them to move the bill this week.

“Farm bill conference committee members have agreed to a compromise that will provide farmers, ranchers, rural residents and America's consumers with policy certainty over the next five years,” said NFU President Roger Johnson.

The letter outlines several of NFU's priorities that were included in the final report language.

Johnson said NFU was pleased that the bill includes fixed reference prices to provide assistance to farmers “only when truly necessary.” Johnson said the bill would provide a strong crop insurance title and about $4 billion in livestock disaster assistance. The bill would increase funding for the Farmers Market and Local Foods Promotion Program and related initiatives.

Further, Johnson said his organization is happy that lawmakers did not repeal or significantly weaken the mandatory country-of-origin labeling program.

Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said while the bill would renew funding for a number of important programs, such as for beginning farmers and organic agriculture, it fails to make much-needed reforms in the structure of farm policy.

However, Hoefner said the bill “jettisons the long-overdue payment limitation reforms included in both the House- and Senate-passed bills last year that target farm subsidy payments to working farmers. It also drops a provision passed twice by the Senate that would have modestly reduced insurance subsidies to millionaires.” Still, the NSAC urged Congress to advance the bill.

Chuck Conner, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said farmers have been facing unprecedented uncertainty in planning for the upcoming crop year and a long-term bill is past due. Conner said the bill contains many provisions reflecting the priorities of farmer co-ops, including new provisions related to dairy, continuation of current sugar policy and full funding for export promotion programs such as the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development program.

“At the same time, the conference report fails to address several important issues, especially in the area of providing relief to producers facing costly and unnecessary regulations,” Conner said. For instance, he said, the bill lacks provisions to eliminate duplicative permitting requirements for pesticide use, and to modify Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasures rules in relation to farmers.

The National Cotton Council (NCC) Chairman Jimmy Dodson said his organization appreciates provisions in the bill, which would authorize a new crop insurance product tailored to cotton, representing a “significant concession and departure” from previous programs - but a necessary step in achieving final resolution of the long-standing Brazil World Trade Organization case.

“We especially appreciate the inclusion of a transition program for the 2014 crop year since enactment comes too late for USDA and the private sector to offer the new insurance product until 2015,” Dodson said. “We believe the transition program is structured in a fiscally responsible way that both complies with WTO obligations and can be efficiently delivered by USDA.”

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) and Heritage Action leveled their opposition.

NCBA said Tuesday they will oppose the bill and sent a letter to the congressional leaders outlining their dispute. Scott George, NCBA president, said the mandatory COOL (MCOOL) program has resulted in steep discounts to his producers and caused prejudice against their largest trading partners.

“Failure to fix MCOOL at this juncture will lead to retaliatory tariffs on a host of commodities and it is only a matter of time before the World Trade Organization rules in favor of Canada and Mexico,” George said. “Once that happens, producers will realize the full costs of this failed legislation.”

Stabenow, said during the conference call, that the votes were not there to repeal the program, but said if WTO rules against the United States, then lawmakers would move on a repeal. Lucas said, “This is not over with, but on this day, it did not prevail.”

The nation's largest cattlemen's group has long argued that the labeling law is burdensome and costly, specifically for the beef industry. The rules require meat labels to state where the animal that provided the meat was born, raised and slaughtered. But for the U.S. Cattlemen's Association and the National Farmers Union, the final language represented a hard-fought victory.

Heritage Action urged lawmakers Tuesday to reject the bill, saying the bill spends nearly $1 trillion on farm programs, of which about 80 percent goes toward the SNAP program. 

The group said there are currently about 48 million individuals on food stamps, compared with nearly 31 million in 2008 and 17 million in 2000.  “Even after the dramatic loosening of eligibility standards contributed to one in seven Americans now collecting food stamps, the conference report contains minuscule reforms,” the group said. “All told the proposal is expected to save just one percent.”

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