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Ag Committees struggle with farm bill
A week ago, Senate Agriculture Committee member Chuck Grassley (R-IA) expected to be reading a draft of an abbreviated farm bill that the House and Senate ag committees expected to submit to Congress’s deficit-trimming “Super Committee” today.
They missed their deadline.
“There isn’t such a draft put together,” Grassley told Agriculture.com Tuesday in during a telephone press conference with the ag media.
Grassley said it remains to be seen whether the leaders of the two ag committees from both parties will be able to produce a farm bill, sometime between now and November 23. That’s when the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is supposed to report to the rest of Congress how it plans to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit over ten years. Of that amount, the ag committees are proposing $23 billion in cuts to ag spending.
Grassley said the committees are still looking at cutting $15 billion from commodity programs, $4 billion from conservation and another $4 billion from nutrition programs.
But the committee leaders and their staff are still working on exactly how to redesign commodity programs. As in the past, they’re finding it hard to get an agreement between agricultural groups that represent the West and the eastern half of the country, and North and South. Part of that difference is over whether any new revenue program should be aimed at giving farmers added protection against “shallow losses,” (a certain amount over crop insurance guarantees) or a different program that only kicks in when losses are deeper
According to several Washington lobbyists, southern cotton and rice growers don’t support revenue programs advocated by the National Corn Growers Association, American Soybean Association and the National Farmer Union as much as the Systemic Risk Reduction Program (SRRP) that the American Farm Bureau Federation has thrown into the mix. Farm Bureau is one of the few ag groups that is truly national in scope, but it includes cotton and rice producers.
The whole process is far more secretive than in the past.
Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition told Agriculture.com that he knows few details even in the conservation programs that his group is trying to keep going.
“Putting all of the little information we have together, and reading between the lines, I expect the lion’s share [of cuts] to come from the conservation reserve program,” Hoefner said. It might be as much as half of the $4 billion that will be shaved from conservation spending.
Hoefner’s office in a building next to the U.S. Supreme Court would be expensive real estate, if the building’s owner weren’t the United Methodist Church. From his window Hoefner can see the Russell Senate Office Building, where Senate Ag Committee staffers are toiling away.
“I keep watching for smoke to come out of the chimney like the Vatican (where smoke announces the selection of a new pope), and then I’ll know, Oh, they have a bill,” Hoefner jokes.
Down the hill from the Capitol, not far from Union Station, National Corn Growers Association lobbyist Jon Doggett can’t quite see the Russell Building but his group is always one of the resources ag committee staffers consult. Yet, on Tuesday he said, “I think Senator Grassley has a much better idea of that process than I do.”
He agreed with Grassley that the commodity title of a new farm bill still has many issues to resolve, adding that it’s possible that there may be different programs for different commodities. And when he does have a chance to talk to committee staff members, “the answers I’m getting are shorter, more concise and a lot more vague every time I turn around,” he told Agriculture.com
Grassley has said in the past that he thinks the final farm bill will include a revenue protection program similar to a bill introduced by Senators John Thune (R-SD), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and others, called the Aggregate Risk and Revenue Management Act (ARRM). The program would pay farmers when there’s a revenue loss at the crop reporting district level.
Doggett said Tuesday that he’s betting something like ARRM will be in the bill. “I think you’ll be able to recognize it,” he said, adding that “everything gets changed in the process.”
The Corn Growers have proposed their own revenue program, but have also endorsed ARRM.
Doggett said he doesn’t know when the committees will finish their work, but time seems to be running out. Before submitting a farm bill to the Super Committee, (which Grassley pointed out again could ignore the bill) the ag committees have to have the cost of their farm bill estimated, or “scored” by the congressional budget office. Waiting until November 23 doesn’t seem wise.
“The Joint Committee is going to have enough trouble getting a deal cut as it is, to toss in your farm bill at the last minute, I would not think is going to be conducive to happy feelings,” Doggett said.
Other ag groups, including representatives of Farm Bureau and American Farmland Trust, think the committees might still finish their work this week, perhaps even by Wednesday.
“I think before the end of the week,” guessed Farm Bureau lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher.
Thatcher said the Farm Bureau board would prefer to keep at least a scaled-down version of all existing commodity programs except for SURE, the permanent disaster program known as the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments Program, which expired this year. That means keeping direct payments, too.
However, if that doesn’t happen, Farm Bureau advocates its own new program, SRRP.
“What we’re saying is the government ought to provide for the huge disaster-type losses,” she told Agriculture.com. “It’s a buffer against having high prices fall too quickly.”
SRRP would be something like the current Group Risk Income Protection (GRIP) crop insurance that USDA would provide farmers at perhaps the 70% coverage level, depending on the cost to the government. Then farmers would be able to buy additional crop insurance at higher coverage levels in all of the forms available today.
Thatcher said that even though some analysis of SRRP by a university economist shows it paying out less than another revenue proposal, that analysis didn’t look at crop insurance premium costs. Farm Bureau believes its program would make premiums for crop insurance that farmers buy cheaper.
“We think it’s a better deal for farmers,” she said.
Any deal for farmers may not be possible if the ag committees don’t come up with a proposal for the Super Committee.
If the Super Committee can’t reach an agreement on how to cut the federal deficit then under an agreement last summer to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, most programs subject to annual appropriations will face across-the-board cuts, called sequestration. Grassley said Tuesday that sequestration would trim only $14 billion from ag spending.
Gridlock might seem like a better deal for agriculture than offering $23 billion in cuts. But members of the ag committees don’t see it that way, fearing that they’ll loose control of the process when they try to write a farm bill next year.
Dennis Nuxoll, a lobbyist for American Farmland Trust, another group that supports conservation spending, agrees. The ag community faces two risks if no farm bill goes to the Super Committee.
First, the Super Committee may act on its own to cut even more from farm bill spending than the $23 billion the ag committees have targeted. The Obama Administration has proposed $33 billion in cuts. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), another Agriculture Committee member, has introduced legislation that would cut $40 billion.
Second, if there’s no deficit cutting deal and the ag committees draft a farm bill that’s introduced next year, the bill could face deep cuts or even be hard to pass in the House of Representatives, where some Tea Party Republicans are skeptical of farm bill spending. And, because it’s easier to offer amendments in the House, aggies worry “that there would be lots of amendments on the floor to sort of peck away at the farm bill,” Nuxoll said.
American Farmland Trust supports conservation spending, but if there are cuts, the group wants all programs in the conservation title of the farm bill to be treated similarly, said Jennifer Morrill, the group’s spokeswoman. “If we’re taking cuts, everybody shares,” she said.
Starting on Wednesday, AFT will launch an Internet microsite with updates on the Farm Bill at farmbillfacts.org.