WASHINGTON, April 18, 2012 -The Senate Agriculture Committee expects to have a preliminary version of the 2012 Farm Bill ready by the end of this week, in the hope of beginning the mark-up process next Wednesday, April 25, according to panel Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

 “We have a tremendous amount of consensus around a majority of the bill,” she said. “We’re still working through all the pieces, but I feel confident that we’re going to have a strong, bipartisan bill.”

The committee mark-up of new multi-year farm legislation, to be undertaken title by title, will most likely include the $23 billion in reductions that the committee outlined last fall. Stabenow said she doesn’t expect to deal with amendments for every title during the mark-up. However, she and Ranking Member Pat Roberts, R-Kans., both noted during a session with the National Association of Agricultural Journalists that the Commodity Title proves to be the most challenging during every farm bill.

“This may not be best possible bill in the eyes of some commodity groups. But it’s the best bill possible,” Roberts said. “I think we can convince a majority of commodities that the need to move and come together and prove to leadership that we can get this on the floor within a week.”

Stabenow noted that the committee made a decision to eliminate direct payments, given to farmers regardless of actual plantings, but that the safety net will be risk-based with crop insurance as a foundation.

“We’ve heard that crop insurance is the most important thing to farmers and we anticipate being able to make improvements,” she said, also noting that crop insurance legislation for specialty crops is still being adjusted.

“I hope we don’t get back to situation where farmers are planting for the government as opposed to the market,” Roberts said when asked about raising target prices.

Other issues include a National Cotton Council proposal, the Stacked Income Protection Plan (STAX), which may be noncompliant with WTO rules, a situation that must be remedied, said Stabenow.

“Brazil has raised a number of concerns,” she said. “We’re working through how we can accommodate those. I expect that they may have concerns with whatever we have, but we can still be reasonable and have something we believe is defensible.”

Roberts said it should be possible for USDA, the National Cotton Council and Senate Committee members to develop something from the STAX proposal that would eliminate WTO concerns.

“I think we’re making real progress,” Roberts said. “The members of the committee know we’re under a deadline and we have to move very expeditiously.”

Stabenow said the Energy Title has a limited amount of mandatory funding, but will include some authorizations and loan guarantees. The Livestock Disaster Assistant Program will be continued, but committee sources are signaling that the Livestock Title could be eliminated.

She added that the focus of the Nutrition Title will be the elimination of fraud and abuse in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as well as modifications to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) payments.

“My focus on SNAP is to make sure not a dollar of it goes where it shouldn’t,” she said.

While the Senate Committee attempts to write a mark-up to save $23 billion in the next farm bill, the House Agriculture Committee will hold its last farm bill field hearing on Friday in Dodge City, Kansas. Lucas said the House panel will then begin hearings in Washington.

While recognizing that budget proposals from President Obama and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan both suggest more than $30 billion in reductions for agriculture and cuts to the crop insurance program, Lucas said the Agriculture Committees are best left to make those budget reduction decisions because they “understand the subject matter, the consequences and the historic process” of farm policy.

“If crop insurance is the way we go then we have to make it more efficient,” Lucas said. “But don’t kill the program by taking away the incentive to participate. Crop insurance has already given a huge amount of dollars.”

When it comes to dairy policy, Lucas said “it’s easy to understand why [the industry] would want to do something different,” given that the dairy sector just experienced a decade worse than any other in the agricultural industry. “Unfortunately, dairy policy is as complicated as any farm policy in the world,” Lucas said. “How do you craft policy that saves money and that makes a policy difference?” He said that Ranking Member Colin Peterson, D-Minn., made considerable progress with the reforms of the Dairy Security Act, but it is not likely to satisfy everyone. Lucas declined to comment on exact components of a new farm bill yet, but that “assuredly there will be some very lively debate when it gets to the floor of the House.”

Peterson said he questioned the reintroduction of conservation compliance to crop insurance, which is encouraged by some agriculture and environmental groups as necessary, given the likely elimination of direct payments.

“I don’t know how you make that work without screwing the system up,” he said. “When we decoupled conservation from crop insurance in 1996, the main reason was to get more participation in crop insurance and it worked.”

Peterson questioned the availability of people to police compliance with conservation requirements, as well as avoid the temptation for growers to opt out of a joint compliance and crop insurance system as commodity prices rise.

Stitching together the remaining pieces of a new farm safety net will be a more difficult task for the House panel, he predicted.

The multi-faceted approach recommended by ag committee leaders last fall will “be a place to start,” Peterson told Agri-Pulse recently. “The issue is how do we untangle this dispute we have about target prices and revenue programs and having a choice, and STAX for cotton. You’ve got folks on different sides of those issues and that’s going to be a challenge to pull that together.”


Original story printed in April 18th, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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