Farm bill conferees still face key issues


WASHINGTON – Key House and Senate farm bill conferees are meeting privately to “resolve various outstanding issues,” but the conference committee postponed its April 12 public meeting until April 16.

The latest round of negotiations hashed through the commodity title. The $2 billion direct payment program for dairy is still up in the air, as is loan rate authority.

In the exchange on the commodity title, House conferees agreed to some updating of acreage and inclusion of soybeans and oilseeds.

House conferees also offered to raise loan rates 1 percent higher than called for in their bill. Senate conferees agreed they would not insist on the much higher loan rates in their bill.

Dairy program. The Senate bill proposes one dairy program with two separate payment plans. One that would apply to 12 states in the Northeast – Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, new York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia – and one that would apply to the rest of the nation.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a farm bill conferee, is insisting that a payment plan be included, although he is proposing an alternative that uses a $16.94 target price, less the Class I price per hundredweight in Boston, multiplied by 45 percent.

Leahy funds the proposal by shifting funding from the dairy price support program’s budget, which is not a popular option.

Loan rate authority. A Senate Democratic aide said the most important remaining policy issue on the commodity title is whether the agriculture secretary will retain authority to lower loan rates.

The House bill gives the secretary the authority to determine rates and the Senate bill does not. House Agriculture Chairman Larry Combest told the committee that for the purposes of discussion, the conference would assume the secretary does not have the authority.

A top Senate Republican agriculture aide said he did not see as much movement on the commodity title as key leaders described publicly, but said that once the decisions are made the rest of the bill will come together quickly.

Combest told reporters late April 11 that he expects compromises on the controversial issues of the ban of packer livestock ownership and country-of-origin labeling.

“I don’t see a deadlock issue right now,” Combest said.

Food stamps. Combest added, however, that the conference committee is “right back where we started” on the food stamp issue.

Last week House Republican conferees adopted a measure to expand participation in the food stamp program that was much more restrictive in giving legal immigrants access than the proposal in the Senate bill supported by the Bush administration.

Get our Top Stories in Your Inbox

Next step: Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.