WASHINGTON, January 25, 2012 - House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas is dealing with a lot of moving cards as he tries to pull together a winning hand on the 2012 farm bill. Some cards haven’t been played yet. With others, “I’m holding the cards very close to my chest like any good card player should,” he told Agri-Pulse during an exclusive interview Tuesday.

Lucas says he still wants to do a farm bill this year, but it will be difficult to “get everything squared up,” including the budget, the policy, the House Agriculture Committee, and the full U.S. House of Representatives. The Congressional Budget Office will release an early glimpse of the nation’s fiscal situation in its “Budget and Economic Outlook” on Jan. 31. But CBO’s March baseline will outline farm bill spending, including the potential impact of sequestration.

Lucas expects Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who earned his admiration during what he describes as the “hurry up” farm bill ‑ developed with $23 billion in cuts last fall ‑ to move first on writing a new farm bill before the current one expires at the end of this fiscal year.

“She is probably, whether it was in the super committee process or even now, as focused as anybody in this capital city in trying to get another farm bill,” Lucas emphasized.

The Oklahoma Republican says he still needs to work through some issues with “my ranking member, my leadership, my Republican members of the ag committee,” acknowledging that he didn’t have “as much input as my members would have liked or as I wanted, because we just didn’t have time.”

However, the farm bill package sent to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction in November will likely be the starting point for deliberations this year. Lucas says that, with the exception of the commodity title, there was not much disagreement on other sections of that package.

For example, Lucas says the conservation title written in November consolidated some programs and has fewer dollars, but the structure and ability to deliver services remains in place. In nutrition, “the agreed to savings were just reasonable and rational” and the “approximate $4 billion savings in the nutrition title was the only agreed to savings by anybody in any of these working groups, at any level. These were savings achieved that didn’t take away one calorie off of one qualifying person’s plate, which was important to me.”

The commodity title remains the biggest struggle and Lucas says much of that evolved around the question of “do you have a single, one size program that fits everybody, or do you have options?”

“Ultimately, we agreed we needed options,” he explained. “Whether you start with the concepts of the hurry up farm bill proposal or whether you build totally from scratch. There are only so many ways to reinvent the wheel. We are going to have to save at least $23 billion.”

Without endorsing any specifics, Lucas signaled that he is willing to look at other proposals that might be advanced by the American Farm Bureau Federation or concepts being touted last week by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-ND.

“We are going to look at it all and if they have ideas that are better than what’s been discussed or will enhance what’s been discussed, I’m not afraid to plagiarize farm policy as long as the net result is a better product for America. I’ll give credit where credit is due and steal their ideas, happily.”

Asked whether he favors a shallow loss or deep loss concept as part of any new farm safety net, Lucas went back to his poker face.

“That’s one of those things that at this point, I’m holding my powder dry, because that causes an instant alignment between a variety of factions and a variety of regions,” he said. “I got into a little bit of trouble in some parts of the country by insisting in the hurry up farm bill that we have an option; that it not be just a one size fits all bill……If you go the shallow loss route, potentially you have a greater exposure, cost-wise.  If you’re focused on catastrophic incidents, potentially you lower the exposure. So it may come down in a lot of ways to how much money is in the baseline.”

While Lucas has not gone public with a timeline, he’s clearly been thinking about next steps. During last week’s GOP strategy retreat, he had conversations about new budget parameters with House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan and praised the Wisconsin Republican for his flexibility on budget cuts last year.

Anticipating an extremely tough floor debate over the next farm bill, Lucas and Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., have also met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus to discuss nutrition spending, which makes up about 80% of the farm bill.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that it will be easier to secure a presidential signature on the 2012 Farm Bill if I can put it on the president’s desk before election day…..But some would argue that from maybe June or July 1 on, that it will be difficult to pass anything in the Senate or the House.

If it’s absolutely impossible to get something on the president’s desk before the election, Lucas says “we’ll talk about an extension and how much money we have and what we can do with it.

“We’ll talk about a farm bill in lame duck if that’s necessary. I’m going to play the hand that is dealt me,” he emphasized.



Original story printed in January 25, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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