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House farm bill draft emerges

The House Agriculture Committee released a farm bill "discussion draft," Thursday. As expected, the proposed Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act (FARRM), cuts nutrition programs more deeply than the farm bill passed by the Senate last month. It keeps a revenue program similar to the Senate bill and adds back target prices for a new, improved version of counter-cyclical payments called Price Loss Coverage (PLC).

That, too, was expected, after growers of southern crops, especially peanuts and rice, testified before the House committee that they considered the Senate's revenue program to be inadequate protection from potential drops in income. Under the House committee proposal, growers would have a choice of signing up for PLC or what the House Ag Committee calls Revenue Loss Coverage (RLC).
Like the Senate bill, the House bill would consolidate more than 100 USDA programs and simplifies signing up for conservation programs. And it eliminates direct payments. Its total savings from federal spending over 10 years would be $16 billion from food stamps, more than $14 billion from commodity programs and more than $6 billion from conservation. Total savings would be $35 billion versus more than $23 billion in the Senate bill.
The bill is scheduled to be marked up by the full committee starting next Wednesday, July 11.


In a statement released with the draft, the committee chairman, Frank Lucas (R-OK), said, "I'm pleased to release this bipartisan legislation with my friend and colleague Collin Peterson [the committee's ranking Democrat]. Our efforts over the past two years have resulted in reform-minded, fiscally responsible policy that is equitable for farmers and ranchers in all regions and will lead to improved program delivery. This bill is an investment in production agriculture and rural America."
The House bill's revenue program appears slightly less generous than the Senate version, called Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC). Payments for the House RLC program wouldn't start until a producer has a 15% loss in revenue, not the 11% trigger for ARC. The bigger loss requirement helps "ensure that all risk is not removed from farming and that no growers are guaranteed profits," says a committee summary of the bill.
The House bill's revenue program doesn't allow growers to sign up for farm-level coverage as the Senate bill does. Only county-wide revenue losses would trigger payments, so that "a government program is not set up to duplicate, for free, what farmers should pay for under crop insurance," according to the summary.


Commodity groups were still poring over details in the 557-page draft but they welcomed progress in moving legislation through the House. 
“The National Corn Growers Association is pleased to see the House Agriculture Committee propose their version of the 2012 farm bill.  Our board is assessing similarities and differences between the legislation and our grower-developed policy. NCGA continues to call on Congress to pass a new farm bill this year,” the group said in a statement.
Just before the release of the farm bill draft, the National Association of Wheat Growers said it "applauds the efforts of the House Committee as we know they have been working diligently on the bill.  We look forward to continuing the process and ultimately passing a farm bill this year." 
National Farmers Union said it's "pleased to see the House Agriculture Committee begin to move a 2012 Farm Bill. This is a critical step toward ensuring that a farm bill is passed before the current legislation expires on Sept. 30. NFU is also pleased that the House discussion draft contains provisions to address a long-term market collapse – a very critical part of any safety net."
NFU said it considered the cuts to food stamps to be too large in the current time of economic weakness. And it pointed out that even though the House farm bill has an energy title, it has no mandatory funding. 
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition noted that the House bill's conservation title is similar to the Senate bill, with an important exception, according to the group's lobbyist, Ferd Hoefner: "The Senate bill reduces EQIP [Environmental Quality Incentives Program] and CSP {Conservation Stewardship Program] funding by close to the same amount - roughly 10%….  The draft House bill, by sharp contrast, does not cut EQIP, and therefore doubles down on the CSP cut, proposing to limit CSP enrollment to 9.0 million acres a year rather than the Senate's 10.3 million acres a year (versus 12.8 million acres a year under the 2008 Farm Bill).  This is a 30% reduction in CSP acreage per year, for a program that even at today's level can only enroll 50% of farmer and rancher applicants.  Thousands of farmers already cannot gain access to CSP due to funding constraints.  The House bill would make a tough situation even worse.  This is incredibly short sighted.  Both programs have an important role to play.  EQIP provides cost-share support to help get some basic conservation structures in place.  CSP provides stewardship payments for long-term conservation management and environmental improvement."
Hoefner's group and some 60 others, including wildlife groups such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, also object to the House bill's version of sodsaver legislation as riddled with loopholes. The Senate bill cuts crop insurance premium subsidies by 50 percentage points on grasslands broken up for crops. The House sodsaver language applies to only parts of the Dakotas and exempts all of Oklahoma and Texas. The groups are urging the committee to incorporate a bill introduced by House Ag Committee members Kristi Noem (R-SD) and Tim Walz (D-MN) that applies sodsaver rules nationally.
That's only one potential change likely to be debated by the committee next week. And even if the committee succeeds in finishing its version of the bill, the next step of getting it considered by the full House of Representatives remains uncertain.
Representative Peterson (D-MN), in a statement, urged more certainty: "Congress needs to complete work on the 2012 Farm Bill before the current bill expires, otherwise we jeopardize one of the economic bright spots of our nation’s fragile economy. The legislation released today brings us yet another step closer to achieving this goal and I am pleased to have worked with the Chairman in this effort. We have a commodity title in place that will work for all parts of the country as well as continued support for the sugar program and my Dairy Security Act…There will be challenges ahead, but we will pass the bill out of Committee next week and, if the House leadership gets this right and brings the bill to the floor, we will ultimately finish the bill in September.”
Highlights of the House Ag Committee's draft bill can be found here.
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