House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas is convinced that the nation’s farmers and ranchers will get a new farm bill. He stops short of predicting just when that will happen, however.
“I don’t know when; I don’t know what shape; I don’t know what every nuance of policy will be; I don’t know how or when—yet,” says Lucas, R-Okla. “But there will be a farm bill we can all participate in. Be assured of that. It will be a comprehensive farm bill.”
Lucas, speaking at the inaugural Southwest Ag Issues Summit in Austin, expressed some degree of frustration at times concerning the lack of progress in getting the bill he ushered out of committee onto the House floor.
The consequences of not getting a farm bill passed would be hard “on Rural America first, then on banks, then small towns and then across the country. A strong Rural America is necessary for the good of the nation.”
He said if he gets as much as “a quarter of an inch opening in a window of opportunity to get the farm bill on the floor of the House, “I’ll drive a freight train through it.”
Responding to an audience question about his interaction with House leadership on bringing the bill to a vote, he said, “When I’m in Washington, I’m like a rash, I’m all over them.”
He believes Congress can pass a farm bill and have it on the president’s desk before the election, but concedes that time is growing short. “The window of opportunity is still there,” he said. “It will depend on the members’ attitudes when they get back from recess.”
Opportunity still there
If, after visiting constituents, members come back more focused on deficit reduction, jobs and other issues, the farm bill may be overlooked.
“I think Speaker Boehner understands the ramifications of the farm bill,” Lucas said. “He also understands he has a large number of freshmen who were elected on a promise to cut everything.”
He said a faction of Congress on the far left “never want to spend anything on Rural America. But on the far right they don’t want to spend any money on any occasion for any reason.”
The key, he said, is to “achieve a consensus of the middle,” a harder chore with the current polarization of Congress.
“But I think we can do that. If we can get time on the floor, the committee will do its work. The bill may not look exactly like the one that came out of committee, but I think we can get something that we can work through a relatively quick conference.”
He said the best way to get a farm bill signed is to “put it on (President) Obama’s desk before election day.”
Other possibilities include using budget reconciliation to attach a farm bill or to seek a one-year extension of the current law, a possibility that may occur even if Congress acts quickly to pass a five-year bill. He said the timing would require some sort of transition to allow regulations to be written and put into place.
Members of a legislative panel agreed that time works against passing a pre-election farm bill.
“I think we need to reflect on the challenges we face if we are not successful,” said Jim Miller, senior policy advisor to the Senate Budget Committee for Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
“I’m optimistic that if we can get to the point where we can put the decision before the House and Senate we can get a bill that will help Rural America and the nation,” Miller said. “It will require difficult decisions, and nutrition will be a contentious issue.”
He said assumptions that passing a farm bill would be easier in 2013 might not be accurate. The Senate, he said, will lose some key, moderate members following the election. Replacements might or might not be willing to work across the aisle, but even if they are, they will be new.
He also said the past two years have shown that “enacting anything comes with a cost, demands for savings in some program to get something done. What’s ahead for agriculture? Will we pay up front and then be obligated to pay more in 2013?”
Miller said the historic reason for a farm bill has been to “provide certainty for farmers and ranchers. If we keep kicking the can down the road, we’re not creating certainty for farmers and ranchers, and we’re not creating certainty for Rural America. We have to find a way to get this done.”
Matt Schertz, majority staff director for the Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management for Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, said a farm bill “needs to provide options. That seems logical. So, why is it so tough?
“Fundamental differences,” he said, between various farm bill proposals make it hard to come to a consensus. “Often, the priorities of one commodity group conflicts with the priorities of other commodity groups. And we are trying to put together a package that works for everyone. We try to take the best ideas and put them into one program. No one gets everything he wants, but no one gets left out in the cold.”
Schertz said he “remains optimistic that we will get a farm bill. The timing is uncertain.”
Bart Fischer, chief economist of the House Ag Committee, said trying to develop one program that works for all creates challenges. He said a “shallow loss” option seems to be more popular for Midwest farmers. He also noted that the $50,000 per individual payment limitation included in the Senate’s farm bill proposal works for small farmers but leaves larger operations with too little protection.
He said a recurring question during farm bill debates has been: “What if we’re wrong?” about commodity prices staying high. “What if they don’t stay up but go into a sustained decline? Every single farm (in a survey) would be better off with the House plan. The role of the federal government in a farm bill has to be to protect against drastic loss.”
Lucas said a farm bill should not be designed to make a good year the best year ever, but to offer protection “when the trap door shuts.”
Fischer said nutrition “is driving the farm bill process in the House. The Speaker is not convinced he has the votes to pass it, and nutrition is the reason.”
He said time is a huge factor in getting a bill done before the election. “We have only 8 legislative days in September.”
Panelists say a lame duck session after the election is a possibility but the program “would be virtually impossible to put into place in 2013. It would make sense, even now, to pass an extension or transition bill to allow time to write regulations and put them in place.
“I don’t see a doomsday scenario,” Fischer said.
Panelists said maintaining a strong crop insurance program was essential. “A key point was to ‘do no harm’ to crop insurance,” Fischer said.
Miller said Congress possibly could make the farm bill simpler, “but not and represent all the commodities and interests.”
When asked if the nutrition title could be removed from the farm titles and passed separately his answer was precise and to the point. “No.”