No retreat for backers of $1T farm bill

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November 29, 2013

Supporters of the $1 trillion farm bill say they are redoubling their efforts to get a bill over the finish line after the Thanksgiving holiday.

The top leaders of the House-Senate farm bill have come close to a framework during several tense negotiating sessions in the past two weeks, raising hopes on K Street that legislation could squeak through Congress by the end of the year. The four negotiators spoke via conference call Tuesday and reported no new developments.

“Everyone is still working hard to bring this together, which is what you want to see,” said lobbyist Tom Sell of Combest and Sell, who as a staffer was instrumental in crafting the 2002 Farm Bill.

“I’m in the optimist camp,” said Chandler Goule of the National Farmers Union. “There is plenty of time to get this done. Every time there is a meeting, there has been progress.”

House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), House Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Senate Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) failed to resolve their differences in a Monday conference call.

The biggest sticking points are cuts to food stamps, and work requirements in the House farm bill for recipients of that aid.

The House bill cuts $39 billion from food stamps, while the Senate’s cuts $4 billion.

The White House is pushing to limit the food stamps cuts, and on Tuesday released a report that shows how many dependent families are on the program.

Food stamps were automatically cut by $11 billion on Nov. 1, when extra money provided under President Obama’s stimulus law expired.

Stabenow wants to count the $11 billion for the farm bill and is arguing against cuts that go beyond what is in the Senate bill. Republicans say that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) cannot credit the farm bill with that deficit savings since it already happened.

Reaching an agreement on food stamps is key to resolving the two main problems in the farm subsidy title. Bigger cuts to food stamps gives negotiators more wiggle room to deal on the farm subsidies and still get a sizeable deficit-cutting score that could win over fiscal hawks.

“There is a lot of work left to do,” said Dale Moore, executive director for public policy of American Farm Bureau. “They need to make the decisions at the top end of the decision tree and then the rest will fall into place.”

On commodities, the House farm bill calculates subsidies by relying more on actual planted acres than what farmers planted historically.

That can be said to more accurately reflect risk, but at the same time it can distort the market by encouraging more production. The House bill offers more generous subsidies but forces producers to chose between price supports and revenue-based margin insurance.

The rift on farm subsidies can be bridged more easily than the one on food stamps, as was evident when corn, soy and canola producers floated using a rolling average of recent planted acres.

Once the key design elements are in place in a deal, the full conference committee would meet to resolve pesky side issues such as country-of-origin labeling for beef, special inspections for imported catfish and restrictions on dairy marketing.

Moore said that unlike last December, when the 112th Congress was ending, the farm bill would not die completely if a deal isn’t reached by the end of the year. That could take off the pressure for an agreement.

On the other hand, Moore noted that milk prices could start to spike on Jan. 1, when farm policy from the 1940s starts to kick in for the dairy sector. The 2008 farm bill expired Oct. 1, but the effects of the expiration are rolling.

Moore said that it would not be the end of the world if lawmakers were to strike a deal by Christmas, with the votes coming in January.

Goule said that there is nothing written in stone about Dec. 13 and the House could stay in later in December if leaders need to move a farm bill.

“It is not over yet,” an aide to a senior member of the farm bill conference said Tuesday.