Eleventh hour for farm bill negotiations

U.S. Capitol

SALEM, Ohio — The 50-50 chance of Congress passing a farm bill this year is quickly losing ground, as lawmakers are once again about out of time.

The House is tentatively planning to break for the holidays beginning Dec. 13, meaning there could only be a day or two left to act.

As of Dec. 10 — the day Farm and Dairy went to print — House and Senate conferees were still not in agreement. There were reports of positive strides from both chambers, but no details.

The history

The conference committee, which began meeting Oct. 30, includes Ohio Democrat, Sen. Sherrod Brown, as well as Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. The committee is chaired by Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla.

Lucas still sees an end-of-year agreement possible, according to Washington media, but is prepared for a January extension.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he would support a one-month extension of the 2008 farm bill, if necessary.

Blame game. Boehner spoke during a news conference Dec. 3, where he blamed Senate Democrats for stalling the bill.

“Chairman Lucas has made a number of good-faith efforts; we can’t get Senate Democrats to the point of saying ‘yes,’” he said.

But the Senate did say “yes” twice over the last two years, passing bipartisan five-year farm bills that were either voted down in the House, or not considered.

The 2008 farm bill was extended at the beginning of 2013, to run through Sept. 30, following a similar congressional battle at the end of 2012.

New terms

It’s difficult to say what the House now wants Senate Democrats to say “yes” to, because terms of negotiation are being kept confidential.

But cuts to food stamp funding and commodity title reforms have been the biggest issues of contention.

See also: U.S. Sen. Shrrod Brown spoke about the farm bill at the Ohio Farm Bureau meeting.

Key differences

The House bill calls for about $39 billion in cuts to food stamps over 10 years, compared to just $4 billion by the Senate.

The House and Senate also disagree over the safety net program for dairy farmers.

Both the House and Senate bill’s replace current dairy programs with a risk management program based on the margin difference between the price of milk and feed.

The difference is, the Senate contains a provision to control milk supply by encouraging supply reductions when margins are especially low.

Dairy perspective

The National Milk Producers Federation continues to support the Senate plan, which NMPF says would actually cost about $100 million less than the House plan, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

The CRS analysis put the 10-year cost of the Senate dairy program at $302 million above current programs, and the more-costly House language at $418 above the current baseline.

“Without the market stabilization program to both reduce the duration of low margin conditions, and reduce government outlays … the House plan would be a budget-buster — and one that we urge the conferees to reject,” said NMPF’s new president, Jim Mulhern, in a released statement.

Consumer prices?

Mulhern also discounted reports the Senate plan would cause the price of consumer dairy products to increase.

“The purpose of market stabilization is to keep farmers’ milk prices from staying too low, for too long,” Mulhern said. “Any suggestion that it will spike retail prices to abnormally high levels is a deceitful and deliberate misinterpretation of the studies done on the impact of the (two bills).”

Another point of contention is the Protect Interstate Commerce Act, or King amendment, named for Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. This amendment would prohibit “trade protectionism,” preventing a state from making laws that would ban agricultural products produced in another state, on the basis of how those products were produced.

The amendment is in response to states like California, which have recently passed laws that would ban farm products from being sold in their state, if they don’t meet the state’s standard for production.

States could still keep and set new standards within their own boundaries, but could not impose those standards on farmers outside their state.

“Any state, including California, is free to regulate and even over-regulate their producers, but not to regulate the other 49 states,” King said during farm bill conference.

Animal rights organizations, on the other hand, oppose the King amendment because they say it goes against the humane farming movement.

What happens

Should the conferees fail to reach an agreement by year’s end, it could potentially cause the implementation of a 1940s pricing policy known as “permanent agricultural law,” which would cause a doubling of government subsidies for dairy products, and a major distortion in the consumer market.

Estimates are that milk alone would jump to $7 a gallon, and there is fear that such high prices would cause farmers to sell to the government. The price for other foods, including beef, would soon be affected as well.

“The inability to get a farm bill in place will touch every household in the U.S., starting with ramping up the price of our milk to eventually increasing the sticker prices on a variety of foods,” said Kathryn Boor, dean of Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Boor’s comments were made in a Dec. 4 news release, in which she reiterated the thought on a lot of people’s minds.

“It’s time to put politics behind us and focus on the things that matter: Improving the quality of life for our citizens,” she said.


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