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Groups urge farm bill vote

In a hot and muggy media tent at the Farm Progress Show outside of Boone, Iowa, leaders of a diverse coalition of farm groups made another pitch Tuesday for Congress passing a farm bill before the current law expires on September 30.

Even though the House of Representatives has only eight days left on its legislative calendar before the November elections, members of the Farm Bill Now Coalition insist that it's still possible to finish the job that has been stymied since that chamber's Agriculture Committee voted for a bill in the early morning hours of July 12.

Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, isn't letting the House leadership use lack of time as an excuse.

"The Senate took three days" to pass its bill, Hill said.   And he's optimistic that the differences between that version of a farm bill and the House committee's can be worked out in a conference committee representing both chambers of Congress.

"We have similar bills that can be easily conferenced," Hill said.

Chris Peterson, president of the Iowa Farmers Union, a group that doesn't always agree with Farm Bureau, had the same script Tuesday. "How many blocks of three days have they let slip by doing other things?" he asked, referring to House votes taken on other issues since the House Agriculture Committee acted.

Since the coalition announced itself on August 22, its membership has grown from 39 to 46 groups that represent every major commodity and farm group as well as such conservation groups at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the National Association of Conservation Districts. The group plans a Capitol Hill event on September 12 to urge action on the bill.

Chuck Conner, CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, wasn't in Iowa Tuesday, but in a phone interview he told Agriculture.com why his group also backs the coalition.

"NCFC's intent is obvious, to get the farm bill done. We have talked a lot about the risks in agriculture today. They're enormous. Policy should not be one of those risks," Conner said.

When asked who might be affected by letting the current farm bill lapse, Conner said, "Certainly dairy immediately goes to the top of the list. Dairy prices are not particularly high right now."  MILC payments (from the Milk Income Loss Contract program) would end, Conner said.

Conner, a former deputy secretary of agriculture, also heads the Farmers and Ranchers for Romney Coalition and was getting ready to head to Tampa, Florida for the Republican National Convention.

He was less optimistic than some in the Farm Bill Now Coalition that a bill could be passed in the remaining days of the session. But he expects the bill to be passed in a lame duck session of Congress after the election.

Because of the "fiscal cliff" that Congress faces if the Bush era tax cuts expire by the end of this year, Conner expects that session to be much more active than the usual post-election session.

"I think that gives us a window for legislative action," he said.

Even if the House does pass a farm bill in September, putting its version together with a different Senate version can't be hurried, Conner said. The bills are similar, both cutting conservation programs and both eliminating direct payments. But the House bill cuts nutrition spending more than the Senate bill and it has a target price program to appeal to rice and peanut growers that isn't in the Senate version.

"It requires time and, frankly, deserves time. You don't want a farm bill put together in haste," Conner said.

Still some, including Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, believe that Congress will be pressured to pass a bill before the end of September, because failure to pass a temporary extension of the 2008 law would make farm programs revert to earlier permanent legislation, most of which was passed in 1949. The commodity title of that old law gives the Agriculture Secretary the authority to set prices for major commodities at up to 90% of parity. At today's parity level, that would be about $10 a bushel.

Conner thinks Congress won't let that happen. "The 1949 Act, it's not a viable option, really," he said.

Pam Johnson, an Iowa farmer who is expected to become president of the National Corn Growers Association next year, was among the Farm Bill Now Coalition members at the Farm Progress Show Tuesday.

Johnson believes this year's drought makes speedy passage of a farm bill that much more important. She acknowledges that grain farmers will have crop insurance to help cover losses this year, but it may not be enough in the long run. Many farmers will see their coverage affected next year as a result of the drop in average insurable yield caused by the drought.

"Crop insurance covers a snapshot in time," she said, "but a multiyear loss program…gives you five years to adjust."

The Senate farm bill has a multi-year loss program called ARC, or Agriculture Risk Coverage. It uses a five-year olympic average of farm revenue to determine shallow loss payments. An olympic average throws out the high and low years and averages the remaining three.

The farm bill would also provide disaster relief to more types of livestock and specialty crops than a temporary disaster bill passed by the House, Johnson said.

She's not giving up on getting a farm bill done by September 30.

"What you expect, and what your intention is, that's what you get in the end," she told Agriculture.com

There have been other efforts this summer to put pressure on the House to pass a farm bill when it returns to Washington the week of September 10.

A petition to force House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to bring the bill up for a vote is being led by Representatives Rick Berg (R-ND), Bruce Braley (D-IA), Chris Gibson (R-NY), and Peter Welch (D-VT).

Braley, who initiated the effort, has held 12 farm bill meetings in his parched northeast Iowa district. Along with concerns about hay and feed availability for livestock, he’s hearing “widespread concern and interest that this farm bill get passed,” he told Agriculture.com earlier this month.

But under the rules of the House, its members won’t have a chance to sign the discharge petition at the clerk’s desk until 30 days after it was referred to the Agriculture Committee for a vote (on July 9). Those are legislative days, not calendar days. But in a letter to his colleagues, Braley said some days during the August recess count. The earliest that members could sign the petition would be September 13. It requires a simple majority of 218 signatures to force a vote.

Braley said he was frustrated that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) had not formally reported the bill out of his committee, which could have sped up the petition process.

“I think the chairman himself wants to bring the bill to the floor, but he is pressured not to do this,” Braley added.

But Agriculture Committee staffers have been working on reporting out the farm bill, a long process that includes final cost projections.

“The report is completed, and Chairman Lucas will formally file it when Congress reconvenes in September,” spokeswoman Tamara Hinton told Agriculture.com in an email message.

That would be one more barrier removed to getting a vote on a farm bill. But the Farm Bill Now Coalition will have to convince House leaders that it's time for a vote. Meanwhile, the group is urging farmers to visit its website, FarmBillNow.com, to sign a petition urging members of Congress to pass the bill.

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