Farm bill conference keeps slipping while dairy dispute fires up

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Jan. 10, 2014 - Widespread expectations of a farm bill conference this week evaporated Thursday with more dust getting kicked up over the dairy policy dispute. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, essentially guaranteed he will get his way on dairy.

Both Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., seemed a bit dour on a day that many stakeholders and lawmakers thought might be “the day” for a deal announcement.

“There's no white smoke yet,” Stabenow said. “It's a big, complicated bill.” Lucas said it was “highly unlikely” that conferees would announce a framework for a bill this week. “There are still lots of conversations.”

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The slippage could prove troublesome for getting a bill done this month because lawmakers will be tied up next week with an omnibus appropriations bill. Then, both chambers will be in recess the week of Jan. 20. On top of that, the debate over unemployment insurance benefits continues to bog down the Senate.

 

For more on a potential dairy compromise: See Five reasons why the farm bill could still fail

 

At a press conference today, Boehner took another swipe at the Senate bill's approach to dairy policy, which involves a margin insurance program with a mix of supply management tools. That approach, which has been pushed hard by House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., aims to help limit over-production while keeping insurance costs down.

In strong opposition, Boehner and many House members argue the approach would lead to unfair market intervention and higher milk prices. Boehner has said dairy producers should have access to margin insurance, but without production limits.

While Boehner said he expects the “Soviet-style” dairy program to continue, he said it would be made worse by including supply management tools. “I fought off supply management for 23 years and Peterson knows that won't change,” Boehner said. “I'm confident that the conference report will not include supply management provisions for the dairy program.”

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., who authored a successful amendment that would remove production limits in the House farm bill, sent a letter today to top farm bill conferees.

“More than 140 diverse groups have joined with 291 House Members, including 95 Democrats, in voicing their opposition to supply management,” Goodlatte wrote. “As the conferees continue their work, I urge them to remember the House vote and adopt the House-passed Goodlatte-Scott amendment as part of the final farm bill.”   

Jim Mulhern, president and chief executive officer of the National Milk Producers Federation, said conferees should support a safety net for dairy farmers that combine a margin insurance program with a market stabilization mechanism. “It's unfortunate that misguided opposition to this program still lingers in some quarters,” Mulhern said “The dairy title's market stabilization is a standby component that may never be triggered but is needed to protect dairy farmers should markets collapse again as they did in 2008-09. It is a small matter in the overall scheme of this bill.” 

During his weekly media call, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he expects to see a “definitive statement” on the farm bill next week.

Harkin said it would not be “fatal” if the bill's final passage slips into February. 

On the dairy dispute, Harkin said, “All I know is that Minnesota will protect its dairy program. I assume that Peterson will fight hard for his dairy program.”

Harkin said Peterson will “link arms” with Senate President Pro Tempore Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “They usually come through.”

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