WASHINGTON, Nov. 1, 2013 – Wednesday’s public kick-off of the farm bill conference was a civil affair.
“There are 16 million men and women whose jobs rely on the strength of agriculture,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said in the conclusion of her remarks. “They are counting on us to work together in good faith and get this Farm Bill done. And I am confident we won't let them down.”
But the lawmakers’ words belied the controversies brewing beneath that political decorum.
Agri-Pulse analysis of the farm bill conferees’ opening statements – 36 of the 41 participating lawmakers spoke on Wednesday – reveal the farm bill “hot spots,” issues that are bound to cause some consternation and could hold up the legislation, in the words of House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., for “weeks.”
Unsurprisingly, 31 of the lawmakers brought up the nutrition title, arguably the provision containing the largest gaps between Senate and House versions. The House bill makes $39 billion in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cuts and tightens eligibility and work requirements for families and “able bodied” adults; the Senate legislation makes only $4 billion in SNAP reductions and imposes fewer constraints on eligibility.
Crop insurance was the second most popular title, with 17 mentions. Within crop insurance, seven lawmakers (on both sides of the aisle) advocated for a link to conservation compliance; only one, North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven, explicitly spoke against it.
Though it doesn’t mean the conservation compliance will be an easy “win” for advocates: the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) made a recent public push against the linkage, a move Rep. Lucas “applauded.”
The commodity title got the third most mentions, 15, with lawmakers paying special attention to the dairy program. Four of those (Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Reps. Jim Costa, D-Calif., Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and Suzan DelBene, D-Wash.) gave explicit support to the Dairy Security Act, including its market stabilization program. At least three (Reps. Randy Neugebauer, R-Ill., Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., and Steve Southerland, R-Fla.) came out against it.
Many predict dairy will become one of the bill’s more prickly issues.
Twelve lawmakers tipped their hats to the conservation title, while eight spent time on energy, particularly renewables.
The miscellaneous title – packed with divisive topics like the country of origin labeling (COOL) and Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) rules – also got a chunk of conference time. Seven lawmakers criticized COOL; one, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, came to its defense.
Other topics covered: the forestry title (at least six mentions), the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Program, organics, catfish inspection and, improbably, the lesser prairie chicken.
But if mentions were appropriation dollars, some programs would be poor indeed. Only three politicians touched upon rural development and only four promoted agricultural research.
Perhaps the biggest winner of all? “Bipartisanship.” Almost every lawmaker promised to “work together” to pass this legislation.
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