Farm bill leaders optimistic about reaching deal

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, December 7, 2012

Agriculture leaders yesterday said that they were working toward agreement on the farm bill with the hopes of adding it to either an end-of-the-year fiscal deal or a budget agreement early next year.

House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said that the group was making “progress,” while Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said she would be open to compromise on some of the sticking points in the bill, including changes to how the legislation doles out farm subsidies.

The two lawmakers yesterday addressed an annual gathering of the agricultural community in Washington, D.C.

“We have made a lot of progress in getting everyone to understand all the important issues that we each have,” Lucas told reporters afterward. “We’ll see in the next few days.”

The farm bill funds commodity subsidies, along with a suite of rural conservation and energy programs and the national food stamp program. The Senate this year passed a version of it that would cut more than $23 billion in direct spending over the next decade, while a House version that would cut more than $35 billion remains stalled on the floor.

The bills differ most in the commodity title and on cuts from the food stamp program. The House bill also includes several provisions targeting environmental regulations, including a provision that would reverse a 2009 court ruling that forced U.S. EPA to require new permits from pesticide users who spray over water, while the Senate version does not.

The bills also differ in their energy titles, with the Senate providing $800 million in mandatory funding for rural energy efficiency and renewable energy programs and the House providing only discretionary funding.

The goal of the negotiations, the agriculture leaders said, is to have a deal on the farm bill in short order should the White House and congressional negotiators agree on a package to address the “fiscal cliff,” the expiration of tax incentives and automatic across-the-board spending cuts that are set to go into effect early next year.

Stabenow and Lucas also indicated that they were open to adding the farm bill to a budget reconciliation package that will likely be negotiated early next year if a deal to address the fiscal cliff falls flat.

“We just need to be ready with the policy so we are ready no matter which direction they take,” Stabenow said.

She added that she would be willing to accept some type of price-support program in the commodity title of the bill, which would pay farmers when prices drop below a certain level. The Senate version currently does not include such a program; it instead relies on a new revenue insurance measure.

She said she wouldn’t, however, be willing to accept the level of cut — $16 billion — that the House bill would make to the national food stamp program. The Senate bill cuts $4.5 billion.

Also negotiating a deal with Stabenow and Lucas are Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (R-Minn.).

And if a deal isn’t reached?

It’s not entirely clear what would happen should the bill not be fit into an end-of-the-year fiscal package. Stabenow said yesterday that she remained “absolutely” against a short-term extension of the 2008 bill, which expired at the end of September.

While Lucas did not say outright that he would support an extension, he signaled that he would be open to some sort of “transition” measures, even if the farm bill is completed this year. They are needed, he said, in order to allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture time to administratively put the new bill into place.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who last week met with all four agricultural leaders, brushed off concerns that USDA would not be able to put a new farm bill in place as soon as it’s passed.

“We will do everything we can to move heaven and Earth,” Vilsack said at yesterday’s conference. “Once Congress does its job, we will do our job in a timely way, and we will do what we can to ensure that programs Congress instructs us to create will be created in a timely fashion.”

Both committee leaders said they were thinking ahead to next year should they have to start the farm bill process all over again in the new Congress that begins in early January.

Lucas suggested that a new farm bill would be marked up as early as February in the House Agriculture Committee.

“I really would like this process to be over with — it would add to the quality of my life,” Lucas quipped.

Stabenow said that she was confident that her committee would pass a farm bill again, pointing to a two-vote majority for Democrats on the committee next year.

“I’m certainly willing to do it again,” she said. But she then added, “Do I think that’s the right thing for farmers? Absolutely not. I think it’s irresponsible.”