The strained farm bill negotiations have erupted in partisan bickering amid darkening prospects for reaching an agreement by the end of the year to replace the 2014 law that expired Sunday.
No further meetings of the four lead negotiators have been scheduled as of this weekend, although House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has asked Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., to set one up this week.
Conaway issued a statement on Friday blaming Senate negotiators for the impasse. “Right now, I don’t get the sense that getting something done has quite the sense of urgency with my Senate colleagues as it does with me,” he said.
A GOP member of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Ralph Abraham of Louisiana, was more direct, pinning the blame on Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee and one of the four lead negotiators along with Roberts, Conaway and House Agriculture’s ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota.
“Each time, we think we have an agreement, Stabenow and Senate Democrats move the goal posts, asking for ridiculous things like crop insurance for roof top gardens and other urban farm priorities,” Abraham said.
But a committee Democrat, Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, laid the blame on House Republicans, who she said “refused to compromise, even with senators from their own party.”
A spokesperson for the Senate Agriculture Committee Democrats issued a statement saying, “From the start, the Senate has recognized the importance of passing a Farm Bill on time, which is why the Senate bill moved quickly and passed on a historic bipartisan vote. The Senate leaders are working tirelessly on a bipartisan basis to reach a final agreement. If House Republicans are serious about getting this done, they should put politics aside and focus on working towards a compromise.”
The lead negotiators say there is a wide range of issues on which they have yet to reach agreement and they have failed to close out any of the 12 titles that would be in the new bill.
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“We still have policy differences within each of those. Some are more significant than others,” Conaway said in an Agri-Pulse Open Mic interview. The House GOP’s insistence on tightening work requirements for food stamp recipients is one of those issues in dispute, “but it is not the weightiest,” he said.
The disputes include disagreements on funding levels over a variety of programs, including an energy title that Conaway sought to eliminate.
“There’s a lot of issues on the table,” Conaway said. “No one of them should kill the deal, and the weight of all of them should not kill the deal.”
The impact of the 2014 farm bill’s expiration will be muted since the crop insurance program is permanently authorized, the major commodity programs continue into effect for the current crop year, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program stays in operation because of other congressional action.
However, time is running out for the negotiators. The House adjourned on Friday for the rest of the campaign season, so a new farm bill can't be passed until after the election, even if the negotiators could reach a quick agreement. Conaway and Roberts each said last week that their goal is to have a a final bill ready by November to move through the House and Senate in the lame duck session.
But doing that would require the negotiators to reach an agreement by mid-October so there is time to put the deal into legislative text and make sure that it fits within the funding limits, said former House Agriculture chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who led the House negotiations on the 2014 bill.
“I’m still hopeful we can sort this out in November. I don’t want to start over in January,” Lucas said.
If lawmakers are unable to pass a new farm bill before adjournment in January, they will have to pass a temporary extension of the 2014 law to give the next Congress time to write the legislation.
One of the fiercest battles in the ongoing negotiations is a dispute between Conaway and Roberts over a provision in the House bill that would end payments on base acres that have not been planted to a program crop for the last 10 years. The provision would save $900 million, which would pay for revising yield averages for farmers enrolled the Price Loss Coverage program who have experienced extended periods of severe drought.
Roberts said that cutting off payments for unplanted base would be unfair to farmers who get that money and run afoul of the planting flexibility introduced by the 1996 farm bill. Conaway argues that making payments on land that has been kept in grass for a decade is no longer justified.
“Anytime you change something for somebody that they like, that’s a difficult conversation to have,” Conaway said.
Conaway also said that there are “deep differences” with the Senate negotiators over the conservation title, including the House bill’s elimination of the Conservation Stewardship Program. The savings from ending CSP would be used to fund other priorities within and outside that section of the legislation.
“The gravitas of the groups that support us I think certainly outweighs the small number of groups out there who think that CSP should be continued,” Conaway said.
The Senate is in session this week, but the chamber's attention is dominated by the uncertainty surrounding the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. The final vote likely hinges on the outcome of an FBI investigation into sexual assault allegations made against Kavanaugh.
Here’s a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:
Monday, Oct. 1
4 p.m. - USDA releases weekly Crop Progress report.
Tuesday, Oct. 2
Wednesday, Oct. 3
2:15 p.m. - Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee hearing, "Oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Implementation of Sound and Transparent Science in Regulation,” 406 Dirksen.
Thursday, Oct. 4
10 am. - Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing, "Broadband: Opportunities and Challenges in Rural America,” 253 Russell
Friday, Oct. 5
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