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Next farm bill likely to shrink in new Congress

With more than half of the 28 Democrats on the House
Agriculture Committee defeated in Tuesday’s election, the new Republican
dominated panel is likely to have a lot of fresh faces.

Farm groups are already paving the way to new members, even
though it will be weeks before the makeup of the committee is known. The lame
duck session of the Congress still controlled by Democrats starts November 15,
when Republicans are expected to choose their next Speaker and other leaders who
will then choose heads of committees.

Oklahoma Republican Frank Lucas is expected to run the Ag
Committee in the new Congress next year.

In a statement released Wednesday, Lucas said, “After serving on the House Agriculture Committee for 16 years, the
last two as Ranking Member, and through the reauthorization of three major farm
bills, I hope in the new Republican majority of the next Congress I will have the chance to
lead the committee as we focus on the needs of agriculture and rural
America.”

Both the American Farm Bureau Federation and National
Farmers Union said Wednesday that they welcome working with the new Congress,
and followed a similar theme of offering education.

“As with any new Congress, the American Farm Bureau
Federation is looking forward to working with new members to help them better
understand agriculture – one of the nation’s most vital industries,” said Farm
Bureau President Bob Stallman.

“NFU has a long history as a bipartisan agricultural organization,
working with those on both sides of the aisle,” said the group’s president,
Roger Johnson. “With a large number of new members of Congress, NFU is focused
on education and ensuring that the newly elected members of Congress understand
the significance of the issues that rural Americans face.”

Johnson said that many of the Democrats on the House Ag committee had
been elected in 2006 or 2008 from rural districts that had been Republican. With
those districts swinging back to the GOP Tuesday, “there will probably be more
turnover on the Ag Committee than most of the other committees,” he told Agriculture.com.

It’s possible that Republicans from some of the same districts would be
the new members of the Ag Committee, he said.

 “I would expect that just by the nature of their districts you would see
a number of new Republicans wanting to be on the Ag committee,” he said.
“That’s why we see the importance of of education. There will be more change
than on many committees.”

Some of those Democrats, including Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South
Dakota and Debbie Halvorson of Illinois, were replaced by candidates endorsed
by the Tea Party, which has focused on shrinking government and reducing the
federal debt.

Johnson said that he expects the new Congress to focus on cutting ag
spending as well. But that was going to happen anyway.

“Even had the election gone the other way there was no doubt that the
next Farm Bill will have less money than the old Farm Bill,” he said.

That’s partly because even the 2008 Farm Bill was written with some
programs zeroed out at the end of the five-year legislation, Johnson said. That
includes the bill’s entire Energy Title which provides support for research and
crop production for cellulosic ethanol and advanced biofuels.

“The next Farm Bill is going to look a lot different. It’s going to
spend less money and we’re all going to have to focus on what we think is
really important,” Johnson said.

About half of the Farm Bill’s spending on agriculture goes to support crop
insurance, which has already been cut twice, first in the 2008 Farm Bill and
again when the Obama Administration negotiated a new reinsurance agreement with
insurance companies. Johnson doubts that many Republicans will want to cut crop
insurance any more. And, if there’s one area of the farm bill that most groups
representing crop farmers agree on, it’s support for crop insurance, he said.

If cuts are going to be made, that leaves direct payments, which take up
about 25% of spending on production ag. Another 20% or so goes to smaller
programs for dairy farms, sugar and other crops.

Cutting Direct Payments will be more contentious. Johnson said the
likely new chairman, Lucas, is considered a strong supporter of the payments.
Both the Farm Bureau and Farmers Union in Lucas’s home state of Oklahoma want
continued direct payments, even though National Farmers Union is willing to see
them cut. Members of the National Association of Wheat Growers are also big
backers of direct payments.

Johnson’s group supports spending on the next generation of biofuel
crops and technology, but he concedes that new members of the committee may
have a hard time deciding how to pay for those programs. 

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