Farm bill will reshuffle winners, losers

Source: Philip Brasher • Argus Leader  • Posted: Monday, November 28, 2011

Reworked proposal might scrub pheasant habitat, benefit biofuels

Count pheasant hunters among those who probably are disappointed Congress is plowing under the new farm bill. Biofuel producers, however, might be happy to see the bill go.

Those groups were among winners and losers in the hastily crafted bill that House and Senate agriculture committees had planned to stuff in a deficit-reduction plan that a congressional supercommittee was charged with writing. The collapse of supercommittee talks left the ag committees in Congress to start over on farm legislation.

Ag committee leaders did all their work on the bill behind closed doors and never released an actual text of the legislation. But Pheasants Forever, an advocacy group, successfully lobbied the lawmakers for provisions that would have steered conservation funding to landowners who preserved grassy areas as habitat for the game bird.

“We were close to what could have been a fairly solid proposal from the conservation standpoint,” said Dave Nomsen, the group’s vice president of government affairs.

The ethanol industry was dismayed to learn that the bill, according to a summary that leaked out, would have blocked the Agriculture Department from subsidizing the installation of service station pumps that can dispense higher blends of the biofuel. The measure also contained no money for subsidizing farmers who provide crop residues and other new feedstocks for making biofuels.

Biofuels opportunity

Lloyd Ritter, who led a lobbying effort by the renewable energy industry, is looking forward to another crack at increasing money for biofuels.

“Everybody has got an opportunity to rethink what they had done,” he said.

Congress usually takes a year or more to write a farm bill, which often include days of public debate and votes on amendments within the committees and then on the House and Senate floors.

Committee leaders and many farm groups embraced the idea of enacting the bill as part of the supercommittee process. That would have protected ag programs from attack by urban lawmakers who argue farm bills unfairly promote agricultural giants, and Tea Party conservatives, many of whom criticize farm subsidies.

Now, lawmakers probably will be forced to return to the typically laborious and public process of writing, debating and amending legislation. The time to do it probably will be squeezed because Congress rarely does much in the latter half of an election year. Existing farm programs are set to expire next year, though subsidies for crops will be available into 2013.

Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, said it’s good that the bill now will be written in the “full light of day,” but he worries that lawmakers won’t finish it.

Congress “just can’t get to agreement on almost anything. Then you add to that the additional complexity of it being an election year and it’s just tough to do,” Johnson said.

Anticipating delay

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said the new bill might wait until 2013 because of uncertainty about the federal budget and disruptions of the campaign season. Moreover, Republicans might be inclined to delay if they think they’ll retake control of the Senate in the 2012 election, the organization said.

The supercommittee’s failure is supposed to trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic deficit reductions over nine years throughout government, including $15 billion in ag spending. Food stamps and some conservation spending would be exempt, but it’s not clear whether the ag committees will be guided by that number.

The fresh start on the bill gives critics of the legislation a chance to shape it more to their liking.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who has been working with Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., to tighten limits on subsidies that large farms can collect, said they’ll have a better chance next year outside the tight control of ag committee leaders.

“In this open process, where more than two people are writing the bill, I think we have the chance of getting something good in it,” Grassley said.

Differing objections

Leaders of the National Farmers Union and the American Farm Bureau Federation, which often diverge on farm policy, both said lawmakers should rethink key portions of the bill committee leaders were writing. The Farm Bureau doesn’t like a proposed revenue-protection program that corn, wheat and soybean farmers wanted. It removes so much risk from planting decisions that it will discourage growers from responding to market signals, the Farm Bureau said. The way that program was designed, growers could get a government check anytime revenue falls more than 13 percent below their average.

The National Farmers Union is unhappy with the design of an optional price-guarantee program that is skewed in favor of rice growers and other farmers who favored the program. Rice growers would get payments when the price of their crop is under $13.98 per hundred pounds, a level that exceeds forecast market prices for the next several years. .

“There needs to be a lot of discussion about where those levels need to be set,” Johnson said.

Critics of farm spending who opposed the idea of subsidies flowing mostly to large-scale grain and cotton growers are glad the bill didn’t get enacted.

“The secret farm bill” developed through the supercommittee process “fundamentally exposes collusion between agribusiness and government policies,” said David Murphy of Clear Lake, Iowa., an activist with Food Democracy Now!