November 15, 2013
We have been hesitant to do much reporting on the House-Senate farm bill conference given the somewhat slow, step-by-step nature of the task of trying to hammer out a final, compromise bill. But inquiring readers have asked where things stand, and we don’t blame them for asking, so here is a quick summary.
Conference Meetings — The Senators and Representatives who are members of the conference have not met again since the initial meeting on October 30, during which each member staked out their major priorities. For better or for worse, no further meetings of the conferees are currently scheduled.
To date, the staff for all conferees have held staff-level meetings on the research, horticulture, energy, and miscellaneous titles, though they have not completed the staff-level consideration of any of those four titles as of yet. During “staff conferencing” sessions, the goal is to try to settle as many issues as possible at the staff level, and to leave as few issues as possible open for further member-level debate. Presumably, they will take one more stab at the four titles they have started in order to further limit the number of issues they punt to the member level.
The other eight titles – commodities, conservation, trade, nutrition, credit, rural development, forestry, and crop insurance – are still on deck.
The two chairs and ranking members – Senators Stabenow (D-MI) and Cochran (R- MS) and Representatives Lucas (R-OK) and Peterson (D-MN) – have reportedly had numerous meetings to try to work toward deals on the big funding and contentious policy issues. Solid information on the status of those talks is hard to come by, though there are sound bites galore on a near daily basis.
Budget Conference Interface — At the same time the farm bill conference is happening, another House-Senate conference is taking place on the budget for Fiscal Year 2014. The interface between the farm bill and the potential budget deal has been a topic of increasingly heated debate, with farm bill conferees weighing in on various sides of the debate.
Just yesterday, House Speaker Boehner (R-OH) stated his outright opposition to including the farm bill (and its tens of billions of dollars in budget savings) as part of a budget deal. That statement by the Speaker undoubtedly sets back the effort to pass a farm bill this year, though with all the setbacks the farm bill has experienced in the past two and a half years, it is far too soon to say it is a mortal blow.
At the beginning of the week, NSAC sent a letter to the Budget conferees stating our views on the circumstances under which it would be acceptable and indeed a positive idea to attach a farm bill conference report to a broader budget deal. We stressed the need to reach a budget deal and to eliminate or limit the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. In that context, we support the idea of using savings from the farm bill conference to offset the removal of sequestration, provided the farm bill conference decisions are honored and that a fair portion of the offset is apportioned to the annual agricultural appropriations bill.
Farm Bill Funding Issues — No decisions have been made with respect to the size and scope of the budget cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), one of the top points of disagreement between the House and Senate bills. Until that decision gets made, no decision can be made on the overall size of the farm bill budget cuts, and thus no hard and fast decisions can be made on any farm bill funding issues.
Not counting the nutrition title, the Senate farm bill would save $13.95 billion over the next decade, whereas the House farm bill would save $12.89 billion. While not identical, and while the relative closeness of the numbers mask a lot of program-by-program disagreements, the numbers are at least in the same ballpark. However, add in the nutrition title (primarily SNAP), and the difference soars to $17.89 billion versus $51.88 billion.
Clearly, the continued lack of any agreement among the conferees on SNAP is holding up the entire farm bill process. From the smallest farm bill-funded program to the largest, no decisions can be made until an overall number is agreed to, and an overall number cannot be agreed to without a SNAP number. Hence, the sooner an agreement on SNAP can be reached, the sooner the farm bill conference can accelerate and they can start to close titles and move toward an agreement.
While hope remains strong that a final SNAP budget cut number in the single digits (of billions of dollars) might be agreed to in conference, such a conference agreement would still have to be passed again on the House floor, where the proposition remains dicey, and where the odds would be considerably higher in the context of a broader budget deal that included the farm bill. Speaker Boehner’s recent comments obviously diminish the prospects for such an outcome.
Commodity Warfare — Discussions are ongoing on reaching a deal on the commodity title of the farm bill. As has been the case throughout this very protracted farm bill process, the basic shape at a macro level is clear. There will be options galore in the commodity title — and its close cousin, the crop insurance title — such that every crop and every region of the country gets its own, specialized, and sometimes redundant programs and options within programs. Which is to say that, rather than creating a new coherent overall national policy or a movement in that direction, the process this time has become one in which each crop and crop-region has sought, and to a significant extent gained, its own favored option and approach.
The big conference disagreements have been winnowed down to a few. One is whether to base program support on whatever acres a farmer or landowner decides to plant in the future or on some historical base, or in various combinations of the two. This issue has great bearing on protecting the environment and natural resources as well as on world trade litigation, in addition to the differing philosophical and economic perspectives of commodity trade associations.
Another is how high or low to set government “target” prices for various commodities. Those targets determine when payments under certain commodity programs will be triggered. A third is whether, given the myriad options that will be in the final bill, a farmer should be able to choose all options, and get paid whenever any of them trigger payments, or should be forced to choose a particular option and have access only to it over the next five years.
Subsidy Reform — One subsidy reform is identical in both bills – the historic commodity program reform to limit payments, of whatever stripe, to $50,000 per farm (or $100,000 for a married couple) and to limit payment eligibility to those who qualify by working at least half time on the farm, plus one additional farm manager. Despite the fact that there is overwhelming bicameral and bipartisan support for this provision, some commodity groups are nonetheless pressuring the conferees to revisit the issue and remove the reform. Such a move would further doom the chances of passing a farm bill, and yet it seemingly remains an open issue.
The other major reforms – a reduction in insurance premium subsidies for millionaires, a reduction in premium subsidies for newly broken out land anywhere in the country put under the plow for the first time, and tying some basic soil and wetland protection measures to the receipt of premium subsidies, are only contained in the Senate farm bill. These urgent and overdue reforms are not expected to be settled until a later stage of the conference negotiations.
Other Members Weigh In — As is the case in any conference negotiation, Senators and Representatives not on the conference committee want to weigh in on their key priorities. As we have previously reported, Senators have written to the conference on crop insurance access issues, payment limitation reform, beginning farmer issues, and fair competition in livestock markets, among others. Representatives have also written letters in support of beginning farmer issues, organic agriculture issues, local food issues, and conservation accountability and crop insurance, among others.
NSAC Communiques — NSAC has written to the conferees on our overall priorities for the final bill, and has also provided conference staff with detailed recommendations on each issue in each title of the farm bill that we are concerned with. In addition, we have joined with like-minded groups in addressing the conferees on conservation accountability and crop insurance, livestock market fairness and contract reform issues, rural development priorities, beginning farmer issues, and overall equity considerations.
In addition, we published a series of blog posts on “what’s at stake in the farm bill?” that highlight beginning farmer, local food, rural development, and organic farming issues.
Categories: Farm Bill