Hill ag leaders lay out plan for farm bill after supercommittee failure

Source: Amanda Peterka • E&E  • Posted: Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Congress will write the next farm bill at the beginning of next year, building on the proposal by Senate and House agriculture leaders that consolidated conservation and cut energy and biofuels spending, Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) announced yesterday.

The goal will be to put the bill through the normal months-long process of hearings, markups and floor votes. That process is markedly different from the expedited one that agriculture leaders used to draft the proposal for inclusion in a deficit reduction deal.”We came up with a foundation for moving forward with the farm bill,” Stabenow said of her work with Senate ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), and House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).The proposal from the end of November offered $23 billion worth of cuts in agriculture spending over the next decade (E&ENews PM, Nov. 18).Agriculture leaders were aiming to include it in the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction’s agreement: “Rather than having others decide what should happen related to agriculture policy, we ought to be doing this ourselves,” Stabenow said of their thinking.The plan, however, fell apart when the supercommittee deadlocked late last month.Agriculture leaders acknowledged it was a messy process but commended themselves being the only congressional committee that came up with a bipartisan proposal for the supercommittee. The leaders had been criticized by some groups for crafting a “secret” farm bill behind closed doors (E&ENews PM, Oct. 26).

“It wasn’t the most pretty process,” Peterson said. “But, you know, we dealt with the hand that was given us.”

The leaders’ comments came at the Farm Journal Forum in Washington, D.C. Stabenow, Peterson and Roberts all gave speeches.

Stabenow said the goal is to have a new farm bill ready for the House and Senate floors by the spring of next year.

Peterson suggested that congressional agriculture leaders would be willing to offer up their proposal this year to help offset President Obama’s $450 billion jobs plan, but he has not yet brought the idea up with Stabenow.

Of the changes proposed by the leaders, the ones to conservation programs are most likely to make it into the final farm bill, Peterson said.

If kept, the changes would consolidate farm conservation programs from 23 to 13, putting them into five groups: working lands programs, regional partnerships that focus on target areas like the Chesapeake Bay, easements, the Conservation Reserve Program and a category that includes everything else.

Although the Conservation Reserve Program, the farm bill’s signature conservation program, is protected from the across-the-board cuts that come with the supercommittee’s failure, it will likely still be capped at 25 million acres, down from 32 million, Peterson told reporters.

The savings of $3.9 billion from that reduction is needed in order to keep other, smaller conservation initiatives that restore wetlands and make environmental improvements on farmland, Peterson said.

Ferd Hoefner, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and a speaker at the forum, said he believes consolidation is an “OK thing to do” but warned, “We have to make sure we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water in terms of conservation values.”

Stabenow told reporters that she “absolutely” hopes the conservation changes will be included in the 2012 farm bill. Other changes, including replacing direct payments with a “shallow-loss” revenue insurance program, are not so certain, she said.

What is fairly certain, Peterson told reporters, is that energy spending in the farm bill will be cut. The leaders’ proposal made significant reductions to the farm bill’s energy programs that seek to make rural homes and businesses more efficient and commercialize advanced biofuels.

Peterson added that he has lost faith in the energy programs’ success and said it was “these crazy environmentalists” who are trying to “kill off corn ethanol, where economics work,” that are pushing for programs to support advanced biofuels, “where the economics doesn’t work.”