Path to the 2012 Farm Bill: Senate Writes a Farm Bill
April 13th, 2012
The Senate Agriculture Committee is on track to meet its timeline for marking up a farm bill later this month. Agriculture staffers in the Senate have been meeting throughout the two-week Congressional Easter recess to discuss issues and proposals. The Senate Agriculture Committee leadership is writing a draft of the farm bill – known as the Chairwoman’s “mark” – that will serve as the vehicle for Committee members to debate and amend when they meet to “mark up” the bill. Chairwoman Stabenow (D-MI) has been working closely with Ranking Member Roberts (R-KS) to produce a bipartisan mark.
Process and Timeline
The next two weeks are critical weeks in the multi-step 2012 Farm Bill process. The Chairwoman plans to release her draft – or mark – potentially as early as the end of next week. Before she releases her mark, the Senators on the Agriculture Committee members will meet privately to view the draft and voice their priorities and concerns. Depending on how that meeting goes, and whether there is general buy-in for the contours of the bill, a draft farm bill may be released as early as late next week.
Once the draft is released, Agriculture Committee members will meet to mark up and then vote on the bill. The tentative date for mark up is April 25, but the date can easily change as members read what is in the draft and voice support for or opposition to parts of it.
Mark up may take several meetings over several days, or may happen in a shorter meeting. During that time, members can raise and vote on amendments to the mark, thereby changing it. Before it heads to the Senate floor, the draft bill must be passed by the Agriculture Committee. Chairwoman Stabenow is still aiming to pass a bill out of the Agriculture Committee and to send the bill to the Senate floor for consideration before Memorial Day. It is an ambitious timeline but a realistic one if full Senate is to vote on a farm bill before summer and peak election season.
As we previously reported, we expect the Chairwoman’s mark to build upon the draft farm bill proposal intended for the Super Committee last fall. Chairwoman Stabenow has said time and time again that that proposal serves as the foundation for this iteration of the farm bill.
In terms of funding, we expect that the overall number for the mark will mirror the number from the fall — $23 billion in net savings over ten years. We also expect that the savings will come from cuts to areas of the bill in amounts similar to last fall’s proposal: a $15 billion net cut in commodity programs, a little over $6 billion net cut in conservation programs, and a $4 billion slice from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp program. We also anticipate that the $2 billion that is freed up by these cuts will be put to the same use as it was in the fall — to help fund existing farm bill programs that lose funding after the current farm bill expires in 2012 and to fund new programs.
Given this general funding framework, staffers have been hesitant to fund programs that weren’t funded in the fall proposal (e.g., Outreach and Technical Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers, or “Section 2501″) or increase funding for successful programs that sustained a significant funding cut in last year’s draft bill (e.g., Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program). It will take continued focused efforts to ensure that these funding issues are dealt with.
There were two big areas not settled nor included in the draft farm bill for the Super Committee: the details of Title I and crop insurance, and the many no-cost policy changes and updates that a farm bill usually includes. There are a number of competing farm revenue and crop insurance proposals, and staffers met this week to debate and defend proposals. Given the strong regional differences in the commodity and crop insurance proposals, and how this was a big unsettled area in the fall proposal, if negotiations are delayed, it will likely be due to disagreements over this section of the bill.
On the crop insurance front, the Government Accountability Office this week released a report examining ways to cap the amount of insurance subsidies any one farm could receive in a given year. While that issue has gained virtually no interest within the Agriculture Committee, it will almost certainly be an issue when the bill comes to the Senate floor.
The fall draft farm bill proposal did not include very many no-cost policy changes that are normally part of the once only every five year farm bill reauthorization. These no-cost policy changes are often improvements to programs and provisions so that issues that have come up during program implementation can be addressed. The mark will include some no-cost policy changes but at this point it appears unlikely to include the many policy and program improvements that are in our view needed since the last farm bill.
What about the House?
While the Senate is moving forward with producing a farm bill, the situation is more complicated in the House. The House Agriculture Committee is planning to mark up its package of $33.2 billion in cuts to agriculture spending next week, as mandated by the House budget resolution. The Committee has until April 27 to submit its proposed packaged of cuts to the Budget Committee. Based on discussions with multiple congressional offices, it appears likely that the cuts will come from nutrition programs, setting the stage for a partisan fight over food stamps in the House. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Lucas (R-OK) has indicated, however, that the $33.2 billion package of cuts will not be the Committee’s farm bill proposal.
It remains to be seen how the House Agriculture Committee writes a balanced, bipartisan farm bill after first agreeing to $33.2 billion in cuts to nutrition programs. The Committee is planning to hold hearings on the farm bill in Washington, D.C., in May, although none has been scheduled. It has long been clear that the Senate will write a farm bill before the House, and if the Senate does complete its bill over the next month, then the House could use that measure as a starting point.
Chairman Lucas has started talking publicly about extending the current farm bill, which expires on September 30. In this particular Congress, however, the often routine practice of extending current policy has entailed significant fights, with the pressure to cut spending defining every effort to create new or extend existing policy. So passing an extension might not be much easier than passing a full farm bill.
NSAC’s view is that the full, real, multi-year farm bill should be passed this year. If the action this year does nonetheless come to an extension, it is our view that the extension must retain funding for high priority marketing, rural development, agricultural research and extension programs, and beginning and minority farmer programs that are funded by the current, expiring farm bill.
Two weeks?! What can I do?
Sign-on as a citizen endorser of NSAC’s 2012 Farm Bill platform and join us in fighting for a better farm bill!
These next two weeks are critical weeks in the fight for better farm and food policies, and it’s going to take all of us speaking out to create a better 2012 Farm Bill.