As expected, the deliberations over a new farm bill will bleed over the holiday season with a vote expected sometime next January.
Before heading home for Christmas on Friday (December 13), the House passed a short-term extension of the 2008 farm bill aimed to calm fears about a reversion to permanent law. Hoping to maintain momentum towards a new farm bill, Senate leadership has declined to follow suit with an extension.
“It appears a farm bill deal is very close to being agreed to,” says Roger Johnson, president of National Farmers Union (NFU). Final agreement would be much closer if conferees hadn't been forced to wait on Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scorings on various provisions that have been agreed to, or being considered.
“They were hoping, until the last minute, that they’d be able to pull it all together until the winter storm kept the principal staffer at CBO, who does the non-partisan calculations of the cost of these various proposals, out of town.”
Finally, on Friday morning, upbeat conference leaders said the CBO scores had arrived and were in ranges that promise compromise between the competing farm bill versions is within reach.
Regardless, unless House Speaker John Boehner keeps the House in session for another week, there’s no way to nail the deal down, says Johnson. However, as the Senate is in session the week of Dec. 15, “it would be our strong preference, since the schedule that the House set out is entirely of their own making, to get this thing wrapped up and sent to the President for his signature before Christmas.”
But that won’t happen despite farm groups’ continuing efforts to convince the House to remain in town next week. After Christmas break, Congress won’t reconvene until a week into 2014. That means, best case, it will be another month before a new farm bill could be passed.
“The unfortunate part of this is that for many farmers, the decisions for what they’ll be doing in 2014 are already being made. In many cases, those decisions have already been made. Add another month of delay, and it makes it that much more difficult.
“It also means another month of delay before the USDA can start working on the rules that will apply” to the new laws.
The conferees have agreed to food stamp (SNAP) funding cuts much closer to the Senate’s $4 billion proposal than the House’s $40 billion over a decade.
That, says Johnson, is hardly a surprise. “Everyone has known that would be the case. There’s no way the Senate would pass a farm bill unless the cuts to SNAP are low. That’s because, in the House, (passage) will require a lot of Democratic votes. That means the only option the conference committee has ever had is to do something that minimizes the depth of cuts to the nutrition title.”
The commodity title “is very close. As expected, they put some elements of the House bill with some of the Senate’s. That’s what is taking time to score.”
How might the South react to what Johnson understands the conference has come up with?
“I think the South will be okay. We understand they are largely following the House version on the prices. NFU likes the idea of target prices and we also like the idea of planted (acreage) – paying for what farmers are actually doing on their farm rather than what they did 30 years ago.
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“We understand they’ll closely follow the House prices. But instead of using planted acres, they’ll use some other calculation – perhaps a combination of bases and updating bases that will be permitted. Hopefully, that will mean farmers will receive payments based more on recent years.”
Considering the staunch position of many House Republicans regarding SNAP cuts in the run up to the conference, will the House be able to pass a farm bill with less than $10 billion in cuts?
“Again, the only way the House passes a new farm bill is with a significant number of Democrats. When the House bill was passed in two pieces, there wasn’t a single Democratic vote for either.
“We also know that until the House doubled down on the (SNAP) cuts, they couldn’t get the 60 or 70 Tea Party Republicans to vote for anything anyway.
“Remember, when the first farm bill was killed on the floor (early in the summer), it was largely the Tea Party folks that voted for all these amendments to put deeper cuts on SNAP. Then, they turned around and voted against the very bill they’d just amended.
“So, those guys aren’t going to vote for a deal no matter what – and everyone knows that. Boehner knows more than anyone else that the extreme right wing of his caucus has been unruly from Day One and is unwilling to support any compromise on nearly any bill, not just the farm bill.”
There’s still a sizable, moderate Republican contingency in the House. That group, along with the Democrats, “has always been the sweet spot needed to pass a new farm bill. That’s what the conferees are focused on.”
One of the contentious issues that has emerged during the conference committee is Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), something NFU is strongly behind.
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“Consumers overwhelmingly support the COOL law. They want to know where their food is coming from. We’re in court, right now, fending off big packers and foreign interests who’d prefer not allowing consumers to know where their meat products, in particular, come from.”
Johnson says U.S. citizens should consider filling their holiday dinner tables with U.S.-produced fare. “We’re proud of what we produce as farmers and ranchers. It’s important consumers are aware of COOL and being able to ensure what they purchase is home-grown.”
NRCS $150 plan?
In other news, American Farmland Trust (AFT) is bucking against a provision included in the budget deal just brokered between the House and Senate.
In a statement, AFT said it will oppose “the agreement authorizing the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to charge farmers up to $150 to help them prepare farm conservation plans.”
Andrew McElwaine, AFT president, said, “Reducing nutrients from farm runoff costs almost 60 percent less than the same reduction from a sewage treatment plant. We should be rewarding farmers who voluntarily put conservation plans in place. Instead we’re going to charge them.
“Conservation plans are a fundamental first step farmers take to reduce erosion and keep sediment and nutrients from running off their land. Without this plan, those reductions won’t take place and instead taxpayers will have to pay to upgrade local water and sewer systems.”