WASHINGTON, Oct. 31, 2013— House and Senate lawmakers consistently identified commodity programs, crop insurance, food stamps and conservation programs as main priorities during the first conference committee meeting as they sought to find a compromise between the House and Senate farm bills.
The conference, which includes 41 lawmakers, met publicly Wednesday to deliver opening statements and launch formal negotiations on a new long-term farm bill.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kans., expressed similar views on the commodity title, opposing the approach in the House farm bill.
“The House-proposed farm programs won’t work for Montana,” Baucus said. “Tying target prices to planted acres runs the risk of undermining decades of reform by influencing planting decisions across the country.”
Similarly, Roberts said the House Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program goes “backwards” by recoupling target prices to planted acres and that it may invite World Trade Organization (WTO) complaints.
“A modern farm bill should not create planting, market or trade distortions,” he said. “The government should not set prices at a level to practically guarantee profit.”
However, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., supported alternatives to revenue or shallow-loss programs in the farm bill.
“[Producers] need to be provided an option to manage their risk, and I urge my fellow conferees to remember the importance of giving producers choices,” Chambliss said. “Also, I would like to recognize that the upland cotton policies contained in the Senate and House versions embody fundamental reforms that meet our commitments in the World Trade Organization.”
Outside the conference room, Chambliss said it is not going to be easy to resolve many of the contentious issues because there is less money available for all the titles, but stressed that lawmakers “always figure out a way to get a farm bill.” Chambliss said the commodity title has regional differences, but has always been “fair and equitable.” “I’m not going to tell Midwest states what they need,” Chambliss said.
In conference, Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, turned to the topic of planting distortions, saying is not an issue in the commodity title programs and that the Congressional Budget Office score shows the House approach has a minute effect on planting decisions.
“The people making the planting distortion argument also favor an extravagant approach to farm policy,” he said. “They have an RFS that has given them a very strong market; they have crop insurance that is absolutely tailor-made for them: and, now, they want a commodity title that works exclusively for them to make good times even better by trying to lock in the high revenues of recent years.”
While several conferees emphasized crop insurance as the most important program for producers, they expressed varying views on the conservation compliance provision attached to crop insurance in the Senate farm bill.
“By reconnecting conservation compliance to our now-strengthened crop insurance program, we protect the future of agriculture,” said Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
Alternatively, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the House has the right approach to compliance. Conservation compliance is tied to participation in the farm program, but it should not be tied to crop insurance, he said.
Members also highlighted the differing approaches to the nutrition title, where the House package includes a nearly $40 billion reduction over 10 years to the food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Senate bill proposes a cut of $4 billion over 10 years.
“We need to reform food stamps with better policies—those that promote work and dignity,” said Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas. “Asking people to work in return for food stamps is not a form of cruel and unusual punishment.”
Democrats spoke against the proposed SNAP cut. Stabenow emphasized the $5 billion in reductions to the program already scheduled for the end of this week. “We must consider that as we write a farm bill,” she noted.
“We have a hunger problem in this country,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “The House bill would make hunger worse in America. I will not support a farm bill that makes hunger worse.”
Opposition to the country-of-origin-labeling program (COOL) surfaced during the members’ statements. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said COOL is not working, and “runs counter to the WTO and our trading partners, Canada and Mexico, who have obviously protested that program.”
Also, battles over the dairy margin protection program and Rep. Steve King’s, R-Iowa, amendment prohibiting certain states from enforcing production rules on interstate goods received a fair amount of attention from conferees.
The conservation title programs, which look similar in the House and Senate bills, received bipartisan and bicameral support. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, emphasized the need to continue strengthening working lands programs, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., mentioned his Sodsaver legislation which is supported by Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., as well as his interest in taking advantage of partnerships with the robust hunting and fishing industry.
Overall, the conferees viewed their task as one that could improve the image of Congress for the American people. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., noted conferees should “remember that people are really fed up with us” and the farm bill presents an opportunity to work together.
“It’s time for us to step up to the plate and show the American public we’re capable of working on a bipartisan basis,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., noted that, “We’re going to lose credibility if we don’t get this bill done.”
Although House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., could not acknowledge when the next farm bill conference meeting would take place, he predicted a final bill would take several weeks to complete. He mentioned “days or weeks.”
After the meeting, Lucas told reporters there probably were not many new thoughts offered during the conference, but it was good to hear the viewpoints. “We’re working every day, every way, every level,” Lucas said.
Peterson said the next meeting will involve the chairs and ranking members and may occur next week, but will likely not be open to the public. As far as any meetings with President Obama in an effort to close the deal, Peterson said he had “mixed feelings” because while it might be helpful on resolving the food stamp issue, the involvement could isolate Republican lawmakers.
Peterson further reiterated that he has the votes for the Dairy Security Act (DSA) language, adding, “I’ve got extra votes.” He said he has had “emissaries” talking to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and that he does not think Boehner would kill the bill over dairy.
Meanwhile, agriculture groups were delighted with the start of the farm bill conference.
Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said his organization’s main goals are to ensure that permanent law is not repealed and that a unified farm bill continues to provide a safety net and risk management options for farmers in all regions, including livestock and specialty crop producers.
Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, echoed a need to maintain permanent law, and also called for fixed reference prices for commodity programs, an enactment of an inventory management tool for the dairy safety net, and funding of $900 million for renewable energy efforts. NFU further said it opposes “unnecessary changes” to COOL and is urging adequate funding levels for farmer market programs.
Derrick Cain contributed to this report.
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