Senate to mark up farm bill while House begins D.C. hearings

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, April 23, 2012

Federal agriculture policy will have a big week on Capitol Hill as the Senate Agriculture Committee marks up a multibillion-dollar piece of legislation and the House panel begins a series of Washington, D.C., hearings on its version of the bill.

Senate Agriculture leaders last week released their draft of the five-year farm bill, offering a proposal that would cut $23 billion from agriculture programs. The plan sets the stage for the House side, which just wrapped up a series of field hearings and has yet to craft a bill.

The Senate markup of the 900-page bill Wednesday will kick off with a package of consensus amendments by Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).

The changes to the bill’s commodity subsidies are likely to generate the most dialogue at the markup. The agriculture leaders have proposed eliminating direct payments to farmers, strengthening crop insurance and adding a new program that would give farmers payments for deviations from average revenue.

They have also proposed consolidating the farm bill’s 23 conservation programs into 13 and decreasing acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to idle land for conservation, from 32 million acres to 25 million over the next five years (E&ENews PM, April 20).

Senate agriculture leaders introduced the bill Friday afternoon. Agriculture trade groups said they were still poring over its details but applauded the committee leaders for maintaining a robust crop insurance program.

The bioenergy industry, on the other hand, appealed for more funding for the bill’s energy title. While the legislation would maintain rural energy programs that are expiring this year, it funds them at significantly decreased amounts compared to the 2008 farm bill.

Funding for the Rural Energy for America Program would be less than the current enacted level of $24.5 million, which is itself a 64 percent reduction from the levels authorized in the 2008 farm bill. The program offers funding to rural landowners for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

The bill would also provide $20 million a year to the Biomass Crop Insurance Program, which provides funding for farmers to establish biofuel feedstocks. That program is currently operating at $17 million, a 96 percent reduction from the levels in the 2008 farm bill.

“We thank the committee for recognizing the importance of energy title programs in the farm bill proposal,” Biotechnology Industry Organization Executive Vice President Brent Erikson said, “but without meaningful funding for these programs, progress in renewable energy projects that are creating good, permanent jobs in rural America would come to a halt.”

The bill contains few surprises; it is very similar to a proposal drafted by agriculture leaders during last fall’s failed supercommittee process.

Dale Moore, deputy executive director at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said Friday he expects the markup to be fairly straightforward.

“I would expect that if Senator Stabenow or Roberts had felt confident they didn’t have agreements, that this markup would not be on the schedule,” he said.

House action

The House Agriculture Committee will also kick off its Washington, D.C., farm bill work this week with three hearings, one of which will focus on the future of farmland conservation.

The conservation hearing will give the committee a chance to hear from myriad interest groups before House members begin writing their next reauthorization of the bill. It comes after a series of field hearings around the country during which committee members heard from farmers and ranchers.

“We are continuing our efforts to gather as much information as possible so we can write sound and effective farm policy that works for all of agriculture,” Lucas said in a statement last week. “We have reviewed spending trends and have heard from our producers on the ground. Now it’s time for national agricultural leaders and stakeholders to present their views on farm policy.”

Lucas has yet to comment on the Senate bill, but his committee is expected to propose much steeper cuts. A budget reconciliation proposal approved along party lines by the House committee last week signaled that nutrition assistance will face the bulk of cuts.

Schedule: The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee markup is Wednesday, April 25, at 9 a.m. in 328-A Russell.

Schedule: The House Agriculture Committee hearing is Thursday, April 26, at 9:30 a.m. in 1300 Longworth

Witnesses: TBA.