Farm Bill 2013: Inside the conference

By Bruce Knight

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Good news-the farm bill is moving once again.  We have conferees named, and this week they will meet to begin reconciling the House and Senate versions of the legislation.  I'd like to guide you behind the scenes and give you my take on what's likely to happen and how to view what you hear reported in the media as the conferees gather and start this process.

First, we all know that it's taken us a long time to get to this point, but I'm optimistic that we can have a farm bill completed by the end of this year.  I see four major differences between the bills that conferees will need to address.  These include farm income support, dairy policy, whether to re-link conservation compliance to crop insurance and funding levels for SNAP (food stamps). 

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In recent days we've seen staffs from the House and Senate Ag Committees meeting with each other as well as an upswing in visits of interest group members with legislators named to the conference committee.  On the one hand, it's unfortunate that the farm bill process has taken so long, since the delays have resulted in increasing polarization and solidifying of positions.  On the other hand, this is the first farm bill for a number of members and their staffs, so the lengthy process has enabled them to get up to speed on the issues.  As representatives and senators work together, I hope and pray that conferees will step away from any sense that either the House or the Senate is the “winner” on particular issues.  Rather, I hope they will work collaboratively to produce a farm bill that's best for farmers, taxpayers and other constituencies. 

Despite variances in terminology and somewhat different approaches on major issues, I don't think the differences between the bills are nearly as significant as some of the rhetoric would suggest.  Of course, as readers of this blog know, I believe strongly that re-linking conservation compliance and crop insurance is in the best interests of those involved in production agriculture, those committed to conservation and environmental objectives and those who are concerned about a strong and vibrant crop insurance program.  Now that crop insurance has become an essential management tool for most farmers, the program is also attracting critics.  It's particularly important that the conservation community step forward to embrace the role of friends and advocates for crop insurance-and linking insurance subsidies to maintaining minimal conservation measures.

It's also important to link farm program assistance to base or historical plantings rather than actual planted acres.   To do anything else runs the risk of distorting planting decisions and risking trade disputes and environmental consequences.   The past six farm bills have systematically delinked farm supports and planting distortions caused by farm programs.  In the rush to end direct payments, we shouldn't inadvertently undo this fundamental principle of separating support from planting decisions.

As the conferees begin their deliberations, don't be too swayed by media reports as this person or that makes an opening statement.  The real work is going on behind the scenes.  And here's the bottom line:  what really matters is what happens beyond the purview of the conference committee.  What is critical for us to get a farm bill this year is for the Administration, the House leadership and the Senate leadership to come to terms on a dollar amount for nutrition programs.  Barring agreement on that number, there will be no farm bill this year.  Once there's a dollar figure, which includes a reduction in costs for SNAP, getting other differences in the farm bill will be a snap!

As a Republican, I agree with those who say that there is room for reform in the food stamp program.  That includes permitting states to exclude able-bodied working age folks who are not willing to work or actively participate in training or other work programs.  Compassionate conservatism demands that we help those who find themselves in difficult circumstances, but willing to do their part to help themselves.  There are some over the past 10 years who have insisted that no changes be made in this program, but now costs have ballooned far beyond what we can afford, and we must address reforms as part of the farm bill package.  And despite rhetoric to the contrary, reforms can be made in SNAP without denying benefits to the neediest among us. 

There will be posturing on other issues, but we won't see final compromises made on farm program titles until the deal is cut on SNAP.  And without agreement on ways to limit expenditures on nutrition program costs, we could wind up in a deadlock that benefits no one.  This is a leadership issue, and President Obama and House and Senate leaders must step forward and take the lead. 

We've had far too much polarization among our political leaders.  Farmers-and all Americans-need them to work together.  There's no more time to waste.  Let's encourage them to do the right thing and find a way forward that will benefit everyone.

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