Hopes dim for farm bill passage ahead of today’s rally

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The House’s top agriculture Democrat today plans to offer a sobering message to dozens of farm and conservation groups that are convening on Capitol Hill this morning for a rally to promote the farm bill.

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, said yesterday that he will tell the gathered groups he does not believe the full five-year farm bill can be passed before the end of the year. What’s more likely is that the bill will be extended and work will begin anew next year with the incoming Congress, he said.

“They’re not going to like what I have to say,” Peterson said of the speech he plans to give today. “I’m going to tell them the truth, like I always do.”

In June, the Senate passed its version of the bill, a measure that would cost $960 billion over the next decade. That bill would cut $23.1 billion over 10 years partly by consolidating farmland conservation programs and eliminating direct payments that farmers get regardless of the number of acres they plant (E&ENews PM, June 21).

The House Agriculture Committee passed its version of the farm bill in July, a measure that would cut $35.1 billion from direct spending and cost about $958 billion (E&E Daily, July 12).

More than 80 groups, led by the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union, plan to have representatives at the rally today near the U.S. Capitol. Calling themselves the “Farm Bill Now” coalition, the groups have agreed to put aside their policy differences and push for a five-year farm bill as soon as possible.

Peterson, a former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, is one of four lawmakers expected to be in attendance. The others are Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.).

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Stabenow laid out a timeline that would have the farm bill reaching the president’s desk in November — if the House acts on the bill sometime in September.

“I’m going to continue to push relentlessly to get this done,” Stabenow said. “I know that we can do this.”

But that timeline is dependent on House Republican leaders, who so far have not given any indication that the farm bill is a priority. Leadership has not added the bill to the floor schedule, with just six legislative days remaining until the current farm bill expires.

Before the five-week August recess, the House instead passed a short-term drought relief bill that the Senate does not plan to debate.

Stabenow yesterday called the lack of priority from the House leadership “very concerning” and the drought bill “wholly inadequate.”

“Every indication that we have is they’re not going to take the kind of action that would be good for farmers and ranchers,” Stabenow said.

Instead of the farm bill, the House this week is working on a continuing resolution to fund the government through March 27 (E&E Daily, Sept. 11). While the CR would provide a slight boost from fiscal 2012 spending levels, it would effectively halt new enrollments in four of the farm bill’s conservation programs in 2013. Affected would be the Conservation Stewardship, Wetlands Reserve, Grassland Reserve and Chesapeake Bay Conservation programs.

In a blog post that called the CR a “travesty,” the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition yesterday warned that it could have lasting effects on the farm bill.

By capping the Conservation Stewardship Program — one of the farm bill’s largest conservation programs, which rewards farmers on a tiered basis for stewardship gains — at 2012 levels, for example, the CR would leave money available only for existing contracts. While a new farm bill could allow greater enrollment in later years, it would not be able to undo the decreased enrollment in 2013.

“The net effect of the CR, in addition to shutting down new enrollments for some very important conservation programs, will also be to reduce the budget baseline for the conservation title of the new farm bill assuming the bill does not get completed this year,” NSAC wrote. “This will make the bill that much harder to finalize next year if it does not get done in the lame duck session in December.”

It’s still unclear what the outcome of the farm bill will be over the next six legislative days. Farm industry observers blame the delay on divisions among the GOP and between Democrats and Republicans over cuts to food stamps, as well as disagreement over the commodity subsidy reforms.

In a speech yesterday in Washington, D.C., Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was harshly critical of House leaders for leaving the bill “dead in the water.” He said the congressional schedule was just an excuse.

“How about working on Saturday? How about working an extra week?” he said. “How about working all the way until Sept. 30 until you get the job done?”

Senior members at the National Corn Growers Association, one of the groups participating in the rally, yesterday said the bill will not get any easier in 2013. They pushed for passage as soon as possible.

“This is my fifth farm bill. Production agriculture has never been in a position where we’ve had to call on the Congress to do their job,” said Jon Doggett, vice president of public policy at NCGA. “Passage of farm bills have always been bipartisan.”

“I think we all need to remember that when we passed the 2008 farm bill, there was an expiration date of Sept. 30, 2012. It was written in ink, on paper. It’s no surprise that we’re at this point,” he added.

Farmers are uncertain and frustrated with the lack of progress, said NCGA First Vice President Pam Johnson. The drought measure passed by the House before the recess has not worked to alleviate that concern, Johnson said, citing conversations she has had with farmers over the past month in her home state of Iowa.

Thirty conservation groups yesterday sent letters to every senator and House member also opposing a short-term drought measure that would pay for disaster assistance by dipping into conservation programs, as the House bill does.

“Cutting conservation funding to pay for drought assistance is short-sighted and would worsen the impacts of future droughts and other extreme weather events by cutting the very programs that help build disaster resiliency into farming operations,” the groups wrote. “Such a strategy would not meet the test of basic fairness, and, perhaps most importantly would stand in direct opposition to the interests of most farmers in America.”