Time grows short for farm bill action

Draft farm bill would cut USDA program spending $35 billion over 10 years while providing farmers a target price-based system along with ramped up crop insurance (including a Supplemental Coverage Option).

The draft farm bill released by the House Agriculture Committee on Thursday (July 5) would cut USDA program spending $35 billion over 10 years while providing farmers a target price-based system -- likely to please many in the South -- along with ramped up crop insurance (including a Supplemental Coverage Option). Committee mark-up of the bill, formally titled the “Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management (FARRM) Act,” will begin July 11.

In a statement following the draft’s release, House Agriculture Committee leadership said the bill would repeal or consolidate “more than 100 programs” while it “eliminates direct payments, streamlines and reforms commodity policy that saves taxpayers more than $14 billion.”

The recently-passed Senate farm bill contained some $23 billion in cuts and adopted policy approaches heavily criticized by southern rice and peanut producers. The House Agriculture Committee’s desire to cut billions of dollars more than the Senate will be difficult to pass through the full House and conference. That is largely because the House draft proposes axing some $16 billion from nutrition programs (compared to the Senate’s proposal to cut around $4.5 billion). Agreeing to such cuts could easily backfire on lawmakers facing difficult elections.

“Will the November elections allow a floor debate and vote for 435 members who have to go back home and run this November?” said Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Delta Council, shortly before the House draft bill release. “They’re going to cut food stamps, cut conservation, cut commodity programs and rural development? So, does either party want a farm bill vote prior to election?

“I think that’s where the test lies. But as far as (House Agriculture Committee leadership’s) resolve, they want a bill out of committee. And I think that will happen – and it will be friendlier to the South than the Senate’s. Farmers here will certainly be happy about that.”

While southern farmers and advocates may be happy, initial response to the House draft from many quarters was optimistic but guarded.

“I will review (the House) draft closely to compare it to the significant reforms we accomplished in the bill that recently passed the Senate on a strong bipartisan basis,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “I am very concerned about some of the differences between the two bills -- for example, rather than focusing on fraud and misuse like the Senate bill, the House bill takes far greater cuts in food assistance by changing eligibility rules so that some people truly in need will not receive the help their family needs.”

Stabenow also alluded to the tight schedule the farm bill faces before expiring in late September. Finding time on the House floor may be difficult. House concerns that appear likely to trump the farm bill include repeal of “Obamacare.”

“It is vital that our House colleagues be allowed to complete their work, as failing to pass a bill by the September deadline would jeopardize 16 million jobs and undercut the strong growth in agriculture,” said Stabenow. “I expect them to have a successful markup and for House leadership to give them time on the House floor as soon as possible so that we can finish the 2012 farm bill in a timely manner.”

While “pleased” at the House proposals release, Garry Niemeyer, National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) President, said the NCGA board “is assessing similarities and differences between the legislation and our grower-developed policy. NCGA continues to call on Congress to pass a new farm bill this year.”

National Farmers Union (NFU) President Roger Johnson is “pleased that the House discussion draft contains provisions to address a long-term market collapse -- a very critical part of any safety net.

“The FARRM Act also has a number of areas concerning to NFU. The $35 billion in cuts are deeply disproportionate and far larger than agriculture should have to bear, given its share of the federal budget. The nutrition title in particular takes a big hit. In these economically difficult times, millions of Americans depend on nutrition programs to put food on the table, and now is simply not the time to be making deep cuts to these programs.”

National Sorghum Producers (NSP) said the House draft is a key step for a “comprehensive and solid farm bill that has a stable foundation and can serve as the new cornerstone for future farm policy. The (draft) indicates producers will have the opportunity to choose the policy option that best fits their farm and provides minimum price protection -- two components NSP has strongly advocated for from the beginning of this process.”

J.B. Stewart, NSP Legislative Committee chairman: “The National Sorghum Producers commends the House Agriculture Committee’s bipartisan commitment to strong U.S. farm policy and to our nation’s farmers and ranchers. We are very pleased to be at this point in the 2012 farm bill process and we look forward to helping House committee members bring this bill across the finish line.”

U.S. dairy advocates also expressed happiness with the House approach. “The primary elements of National Milk Producers Federation’s comprehensive dairy reform package are incorporated into this legislative draft, for which we are grateful,” said Jerry Kozak, President and CEO of the federation. “The bill reflects the best-possible outcome for America’s dairy farmer community, which is in great need of a better federal safety net than what we have now.”

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