WASHINGTON — It’s perhaps appropriate that Congress will begin what lawmakers and advocates hope are the end-game negotiations over the farm bill during the height of the fall harvest.
Kevin Paap, the president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, was in his corn and soybean fields on Monday when he handicapped the chances Congress would call a truce and pass what is traditionally a bipartisan renewal of federal farm and food-stamp policy.
“We’ve always seen that agriculture puts that partisan stuff on the sidelines and works together,” he said. “The bottom line is those of us in agriculture need to work together to get things done.”
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and Representatives Collin Peterson and Tim Walz are among the 41 lawmakers sitting on the bicameral committee assigned to forge a compromise farm bill before the end of the year. The committee meets for the first time on Wednesday, and Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said he’s “more optimistic than I’ve been” about the chances they come to some kind of agreement.
There’s been little for lawmakers, farmers or nutrition groups to be optimistic about, as far as the farm bill is concerned, for the better part of a year.
Earlier this year, the Senate passed a farm bill that would replace direct subsidies for farmers with an expanded crop insurance program and cut about $4 billion from the food stamp program over 10 years.
Senators passed the bill with relatively strong bipartisan support. But the GOP-controlled House voted down a farm bill in June that would have cute far more from food stamps—$20 billion—in part because conservatives wanted to cut the program even more.
The House responded by decoupling agriculture policy and food stamp policy—something that’s never happened before—passing an agriculture-only bill over the summer and a food stamps bill (with a new $40 billion cut and a handful of policy changes) in September. Both chambers appointed conference committee members earlier this month, tasking them with bridging their differences before the end of the year.
Klobuchar said she sees an opening for action on the farm bill since each party is motivated to pass a bill that both saves the government a bit of money ($24 billion over 10 years in the Senate’s bill) and could win bipartisan support, especially after the government shutdown earlier this month.
“I’m optimistic mostly because out of this chaos can come opportunity,” she said.
Food stamp funding is likely to be one of the biggest sticking points in conference committee negotiations, though Peterson said some conservation and commodity policies could come up as well. (Peterson had pushed dairy policy reforms in the original House farm bill, but Republicans stripped the policies on the floor.)
When it comes to food stamp funding, Klobuchar said Republicans are going to have to come down on their demands: President Obama has already said he’d veto legislation cutting as much as they’ve asked for, and Senate Democrats oppose such cuts as well (a group of senators, including Al Franken, signed a letter Monday asking for no food stamp cuts in a final farm bill, but that’s not likely).
One wrinkle in the food stamp fight is the presence of Florida Representative Steve Southerland on the conference committee. Southerland introduced an amendment to the original farm bill allowing states to set work requirements for food stamp recipients. The House adopted the amendment over the objection of House Democrats.
House leadership picked Southerland as a member of the conference committee, but Peterson said Republicans think Southerland “doesn’t intend to cause trouble” once this process starts.
Peterson said he’s heartened by both a late farm bill push from Obama and an apparent willingness from House Speaker John Boehner to get a bill done this year.
But he said he has two main concerns at this point: First, he doesn’t know the process for the conference committee. In the past, he said, lawmakers would propose compromise policies, put them up for a vote and assemble the bill that way.
“The question is whether we’re actually going to have a conference committee where the conferees vote on things,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s going to happen this time.”
Secondly, will there even be enough time to get a bill done this year? The House leaves for a two-week recess starting Wednesday and its schedule is very light through the end of the year. That's when, if Congress doesn't pass a new bill, 64-year-old agriculture policy kicks in to compensate, which could lead to higher food prices (here's an example from last year how that would work).
Farm groups have nearly universally opposed another GOP provision within the farm bill: decoupling agriculture policy from nutrition policies. The nutrition-agriculture alliance is an old one, meant to entice urban lawmakers with high rates of food stamp recipients to vote for a bill benefiting rural farmland, and vice versa. The House approach would end that partnership.
“It’s a real challenge to amass the votes that you need for a ‘farm bill’ farm bill,” Greg Schwarz of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association said Monday (while out harvesting his crops in LeSueur). “Now you can say, 'Here’s the farm bill, here’s how it relates to the nutrition program … they are integrally connected.'”
Colleen Moriarty, the executive director of the anti-hunger group Minnesota Hunger Solutions, agreed, saying the state’s food stamp advocates have worked well with its agriculture community in advocating for a joint bill.
Her priority in farm bill negotiations will be food stamps. The program is already absorbing a $5 billion cut this week when stimulus funding runs out, and a group of Minnesota food stamp recipients (healthy adults without children) had more stringent eligibility standards kick in this month. Moriarty said beneficiaries can’t take another funding hit, and said the conference committee should avoid cuts much deeper than what the Senate already approved.
“People are panicked with the thought that their benefits are going to go down on Nov. 1,” she said. “Their grant from the federal government goes down when they need it the most.”
The Farm Bureau’s Paap said the last two years have been frustrating for farmers, forced to watch while lawmakers fight over farm policy. Their goal now is one easier said than done: cobble together something both House Republicans and Senate Democrats can support.
“Those of us in agriculture, whether you’re a famer or rancher, you kind of have that mindset: You need to work until you get your chores done,” Paap said. “We kind of wish that’s what Congress would do. . . . It’s getting close to the end, they need to finish their work.”