NAPA, CA. August 5, 2013 – For all of those naysayers who don’t believe Congress can muster up the votes and deliver a farm bill to the president’s desk this year, Rep. Mike Conaway, R- Texas, has a message: Don’t give up hope.
“I caution you not to buy into talk about another extension,” he told the over 500 participants attending the 30th International Sweetener Symposium here. “Talk of an extension is being promoted by those who want to take another bite at the product. They want to kill it.”
At the same time, Conaway urged the sugar industry to keep the pressure on their elected representatives, telling them how important it is to produce a new five-year farm bill this year.
Conaway’s optimism stems, in part, from a decision to move a stand-alone nutrition title in September, opening the pathway for an official conference committee with the U.S. Senate later this year.
GOP leaders plan to bring a nutrition package with an additional $20 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, that would boost the total cuts to $40 billion.
While the formal legislative language is still being drafted, the measure will include language proposed this year by Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., which allows states to require many “able-bodied” food stamp recipients to seek work or volunteer in exchange for food assistance. It’s a concept utilized under the 1996 welfare reform bill, however most of those requirements were suspended as part of President Barack Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus package.
However, it remains unclear exactly how the nutrition title would be matched with the rest of the farm bill titles that passed the House as part of a package on July 11, 2013.
“I can paint scenarios that would have it going back to a combined (farm) bill or two separate bills. It’s unanswerable today with any specificity,” Conaway explained during an interview with Agri-Pulse. “The first step is for House to get it’s nutrition marker on the table and then we’ll see what the system says.
However he noted that finding a compromise position between $4.5 billion in Senate SNAP cuts and an estimated $40 billion in House cuts will be difficult.
“It was already going to be a tough slog at (the previous level) $20 billion.”
With only nine legislative days scheduled for the U.S. House of Representatives in September, Conaway expects the final conference may drag into October or November. The current one-year farm bill extension expires on Sept. 30.
“I don’t really see a scenario where we get it done before Sept. 30. Most of the farm bill is crop-year based and we can get probably get this done in October and get it back-dated. That’s been done in the past,” Conaway noted.
Asked if additional reforms in the nutrition title would be enough to win the votes of the 62 GOP members who voted against the full farm bill on June 20, Conaway seemed noncommittal. Some of those 62 “no” voters also wanted additional reforms in the crop insurance title.
“We’ll see. That’s like asking me how long a string is,” Conaway added. “All I can say we are going to put the best product on the table we can to protect production agriculture. Crop insurance has become even more important as part of the safety net.”
Conaway told sugar growers that the “Zero to Zero” sugar policy, which would ask Congress to end sugar supports when producers around the world do the same, makes a “great deal of sense,” but he was pessimistic that other countries would dismantle their subsidies.
“I would certainly be for it if they did,” he added.
More than policy specifics, Conaway focused most of his message on the importance of moving a new farm bill past the goal line this year.
“We don’t need to put this off,” he emphasized. “There are folks promoting that path. I would like for 5 years to go by, where we can put a little oil in the water, where the outside and inside groups can see how well this policy we’ve proposed works on behalf of production agriculture and also on behalf of American taxpayers.
“We’ve got some healing up to do, we got crosswise with some of the inside agriculture groups and we need some time to heal up. I don’t think doing this again next year gives us time to do that,” he added.