Washington Week Ahead: Farm bill conferees press hard to wrap up

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Jan. 27, 2014 - Speedy negotiations on the farm bill are expected to continue this week as conferees and staff try to get a conference report approved by lawmakers - possibly as early as today.

House and Senate GOP conferee staff were briefed by their leadership Sunday, and talks were described as “positive.” Still, several issues seemingly remain unresolved, such as country-of-origin labeling, and various regulatory riders.

Meanwhile, President Obama will deliver his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, which may touch upon immigration reform and farm workers.

With the farm bill, Chuck Conner, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of Farmers Cooperatives, said details on dairy policy still need to be worked out, and conferees are waiting for more scores from the Congressional Budget Office.

Lawmakers appeared to move beyond the controversial issue of whether or not to include dairy “stabilization” provisions which would have required dairy producers to cut back production if certain supply targets were met. Instead, the language includes authority for the Secretary of Agriculture to purchase any type of dairy products, including yogurt, when dairy margins fall below $4.

The controversial debate over food stamps, which pitted the Senate's $4 billion in cuts against the House version, which called for $40 billion in cuts, was settled at about $8.6 billion. In a win for Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the cuts were primarily achieved by boosting the minimum threshold for low-income fuel assistance to food stamp households. Under this practice, known as “heat-and-eat,” as little as $1 per year in fuel aid has been used to claim a higher utility deduction and trigger eligibility for food stamps. The compromise will require that the fuel aid minimum be upped to at least $20 and some of the savings will be reinvested back into pilot programs aimed at further reforms.

Lets Talk Food

The compromise brewing on payment limits will likely move away from language in both the House and Senate versions of their respective farm bills, giving southern interests a significant victory. Although discussions were still continuing on Sunday, the compromise would likely set a new cap of $125,000 per individual or $250,000 for a farm married couple, but it is unclear how these new limits would apply to the new commodity payment programs. And rather than tightening the definition of “actively engaged,” the Secretary of Agriculture would be given discretion to tighten the limits.

“(This is) an egregious increase showing profound disrespect for the democratic process and the normal rules of Congress that make identical provisions passed by both bodies not open to change in a House-Senate conference,” said the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). 
 

It has been unclear if conferees will hold another formal conference this week, or if lawmakers will just sign a report. Current speculation is that conferees will be briefed Monday morning and that the bill will be introduced by Monday night with anticipation of a floor vote on Wednesday night before GOP leaders leave for their annual retreat.

Conner said there has been “strong resistance to (another) public meeting” because leadership “wants this resolved in private.” Still, Conner said he is expecting lawmakers to finally “push this over the hump.” Also, Conner said language dealing with a duplicative and burdensome regulation involving pesticides is still being discussed by conferees.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has cleared space on the legislative calendar Wednesday for potential consideration of the conference report.


In the president's speech, Obama is expected to touch upon immigration reform, higher minimum wage, increased infrastructure spending and other topics. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., vice chairman of the Senate Republican conference, said the president “has a lot of explaining to do” and noted that the president's “policies have been disproportionately hurtful to the poorest among us for the past five years.” After the president's address, the White House will stream a live question and answer session with administration officials.

There are no scheduled public events this week for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden.

The week's tentative events include:

Monday, Jan. 27.

12:00 p.m. The House will meet for morning hour debate.
2:00 p.m. The House will meet for legislative business with votes suspended until 6:30 p.m.

2:00 p.m. The Senate will convene and resume consideration of the motion to proceed to the flood insurance bill (S. 1926).

4:00 p.m. USDA Report: Dairy Data

5:30 p.m. The Senate will vote on the motion to proceed to the flood insurance bill.

Tuesday, Jan. 28.

10:00 a.m. The House will meet for morning hour debate.

10:00 a.m. The House Small Business Committee's Subcommittee on Agriculture, Energy and Trade will hold a hearing on “Small Business Trade Agenda: Status and Impact of International Agreements” in 2360 Rayburn. James Sanford, assistant U.S. Trade Representative for small business, market access and industrial competitiveness, is a scheduled witness.

12:00 p.m. The House will meet for legislative business and recess no later than 5:30 p.m. to allow for a security sweep of the House chamber.

4:00 p.m. USDA Report: Livestock & Meat Domestic Data

8:35 p.m. The House will meet in a joint session with the Senate to receive President Obama's State of the Union address.

Wednesday, Jan. 29.

9:00 a.m. The House will meet for legislative business.

3:00 p.m. USDA Report: Broiler Hatchery

3:00 p.m. USDA Report: Peanut Stocks and Processing

3:00 p.m. USDA Report: National Dairy Products Sales Report

Thursday, Jan. 30.

8:30 a.m. USDA Report: Weekly Export Sales

10:00 a.m. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation's Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard will hold a hearing on “West Coast and Western Pacific Perspectives on Magnuson-Stevens Act Reauthorization” in 253 Russell.

4:00 p.m. USDA Report: Milk Cost of Production Estimates

Friday, Jan. 31.

3:00 p.m. USDA Report: Sheep and Goats

3:00 p.m. USDA Report: Peanut Prices

3:00 p.m. USDA Report: Agricultural Prices

3:00 p.m. USDA Report: Cattle

3:00 p.m. USDA Report: Egg Products

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