Key farm bill issues likely to arise again in floor debates

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 17, 2013- Two days after a five-year farm bill passed out of both the Senate and House Agriculture Committees, Washington agricultural groups expressed their support for the progress while hinting at the battles to come on the House and Senate floors and during conference.

Together we can feed the Bees"

The Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management (FARRM) Act of 2013 passed by a vote of 36-10 in the House Agriculture Committee Wednesday night. The bill includes an estimated $39.6 billion in mandatory funding savings, the elimination of direct payments and more than $20 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It also consolidates 23 conservation programs into 13, with estimated savings of $6 billion.

Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said he expects the bill to be debated on the House floor in June.

Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., also foresees a June debate. “If we can stay on track, I think we should be able to conference with the Senate in July and have a new five-year farm bill in place before the August recess,” he said.

The Senate has already scheduled time next week for floor debate on its version of the farm bill, which passed out of committee Tuesday.

“This provides a great reason for optimism we will have a new long-term farm bill this year, “ said American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) President Bob Stallman. “That belief is further supported by the fact that the bills are more striking in their similarities than in their differences. The emphasis on crop insurance as a risk management tool, combined with flexibility that the measures offer through other safety net choices, will go a long way in ensuring a stable agricultural economy over the next few years.”

The U.S. Cattlemen's Association expressed full support of the Senate bill, but outlined its issues with the House version, particularly the amendment to prevent further rulemaking under the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA).

“USCA urges Congress to not completely bar any action on the issue in the future, and instead, provide opportunities for groups to find middle ground and consensus regarding the clarification of specific terms within the rule,” said USCA President Jon Wooster. The group is also wary of an amendment withdrawn during the committee process that would repeal Mandatory (Country of Origin Labeling) COOL for muscle cut and ground meats. The issue will certainly reemerge later in the legislative process.

Similarly, the National Farmers Union said the limitations on GIPSA, which were supported by Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., “would undercut the enforcement of farmer protections under the Packers and Stockyards Act.”

NFU commended the House committee for including disaster assistance and price protection in the commodity programs while streamlining conservation programs and maintaining the Dairy Security Act. NFU President Roger Johnson said his group would also support an amendment on the House floor to provide mandatory funding for renewable energy programs.

Ferd Hoefner, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) policy director, applauded the restoration of funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, as well as the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program in the House bill. 

“Funding for all three programs is higher in the new House bill than in the bill reported by the Senate Agriculture Committee earlier this week,” he noted.

However, NSAC dislikes the new commodity title programs and crop insurance structure. “There is little farm program reform in the Agriculture Reform bill,” said Hoefner. “It reinvests most of the savings from direct payments back into new commodity and crop insurance subsidies.  It increases the per farm commodity subsidy limitation by 92 percent and leaves in place current loopholes that allow individual farms to collect unlimited payments. It places no caps whatsoever on farm insurance subsidies.”

“We intend to see that these failings get a second review when the bill heads to the House floor,” Hoefner said.

NSAC-endorsed amendments passed in the mark-up include provisions sponsored by Rep. Negrete McLeod, D-Calif., enabling SNAP participants to use direct farmer-to-consumer markets, by Rep. Courtney, D-Conn., initiating a USDA local and regional agriculture study and program review, by Rep. McIntyre, D-N.C., improving technical assistance for rural community development loans and grants, by Rep. McIntyre increasing the liability limit for Whole Farm revenue insurance, and by Rep. Fudge, D-Ohion, authorizing a Healthy Food Financing Initiative at USDA.

A press conference led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., held the morning after the House Agriculture Committee passed its farm bill, foreshadowed the food stamp fight expected to play out on the House floor this summer. “Right now, food stamps are helping over 47 million Americans, nearly half of them children, meet their basic food needs,” she said. “But the House Farm Bill seeks to destroy that precedent. It slashes food stamps by over $20 billion, hurting millions of Americans and our economy.”

DeLauro also vilified the crop insurance program when she quoted a Government Accountability Office (GAO) finding that 26 crop insurance beneficiaries received at least a million dollars in premium subsidies in 2011. “I bet they ate pretty well,” she said.

DeLauro encouraged policy makers and activists “to mobilize and give notice that if this bill persists in cutting food stamps while protecting the rich, we will do everything in our power to stop it from becoming law.”

The American Soybean Association (ASA) President Danny Murphy supported the House bill's key provisions to strengthen crop insurance and continue overseas marketing programs. However, ASA reinforced its opposition to a price-based program in the commodity title, under which payments are tied to current plantings. “The potential planting distortions this program could cause if market prices fall,” Murphy said. “That said, we believe these differences can be ironed out, either on the House floor or in conference with the Senate.”

Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, offered and withdrew an amendment that would have decoupled payments under the Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program from current-year plantings. Gibbs said the current language in the PLC program could distort plantings during periods of low prices. 

“We appreciate Rep. Gibbs' efforts to highlight the potential distortions that could result from a program based on target prices that are coupled to current-year plantings,” Murphy said.

Gibbs successfully passed an amendment that would require USDA to provide an annual report on the impact of the PLC and Revenue Loss Coverage (RLC) programs.

Similarly, National Corn Growers Association President Pam Johnson “remains extremely concerned with the Committee's decision to adopt a fixed-target-price program that moves U.S. farm policy away from the market-oriented reforms that have made possible a robust rural economy.”

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) specifically supported the inclusion of permanent disaster programs and the elimination of the livestock title.

“Farmers and ranchers endure extreme weather conditions - from drought to flood to freezes to the extreme heat - and still work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year to provide the country and the world with food and fiber,” said NCBA President Scott George.

He also noted NCBA's support of an amendment introduced by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that would prohibit states from setting production standards for foods brought in from other states. NCBA said the amendment would render federal production mandates untenable, particularly the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) / United Egg Producers (UEP) housing standards.

Sugar program reform is another issue likely to show up again in the farm bill process this year. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., introduced, but withdrew, an amendment to repeal the Feedstock Flexibility Program, eliminate price support levels and change domestic supply restrictions, among other sugar policy changes.

The Coalition for Sugar Reform released a statement supporting Goodlatte's effort. “We welcome Rep. Goodlatte's decision to bring this amendment to the floor with his colleagues, so the full House will have the opportunity to vote for reform of the sugar program,” stated the coalition.  “We look forward to working in support of this commonsense sugar reform amendment when it is offered and debated on the House floor.”

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