Budget concerns will continue to dominate the farm bill debate as well as other matters as the U.S. Congress works its way through what are likely to be contentious issues over the next few months.
“I am hopeful that we will get a farm bill done,” said Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas-19, in an address to the 56th annual meeting of the Plains Cotton Growers in Lubbock, Texas.
Neugebauer, who serves as Chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Insurance, said he thought the House made progress toward a farm bill last year. “I felt like we had a good bill out of the House Agriculture Committee last year, and I think we will start where we left off.”
But the budget remains a sticking point. “The fiscal concerns affect the farm bill, and we now have a different baseline than we did with the last farm bill. We have to work within those parameters.”
Neugebauer says the House Agriculture Committee also works with a different make-up than when they crafted the last proposal. “We have a lot of new members, Republican and Democrat. It will take a lot of education,” to bring some of those new members, many of whom do not come from rural districts, up to speed, he said.
He said farmers need a five-year farm program, not another extension. “They have a lot of capital at risk and need a five-year bill to help make decisions.”
He said a crop insurance bill he’s proposed would “give producers the ability to carry higher levels of coverage to better manage risks. I hope that become part of the next farm bill.”
The nutrition title of the farm bill will be scrutinized, Neugebauer said.
“Also, the debt will not be an easy issue. The Republican budget proposal offers a blueprint to cut the rate of growth in government spending.” He said he favors spending cuts rather than increasing revenue through more taxes.
“We also have an important debt ceiling vote coming up in May.” He said the sequester has made broad-based cuts instead of “line-by-line reductions. It’s not a small challenge. But the debt is a challenge we must meet, and it will continue to dominate discussions.”
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Immigration reform also poses a significant challenge. “Unfortunately, immigration reform gets lumped in with border security. These are separate issues, but they still get lumped together.”
Neugebauer said immigration reform should resemble a three-legged stool. “The first leg is a strong border. We need to know who is coming into the country, and we need to change the way we vet people coming in. We need to look at the economic effect of labor needed to help get crops in as well as looking for specific skills.”
The second leg, he said, is to devise “an immigration policy that makes sense.”
The third is to deal with the large number of undocumented people already in the country, which he estimates at between 11 million and 12 million.
“We have to decide how to address this,” he said. “We should provide a process that allows the undocumented to change to a legal status.”
He emphasized that he did not use the word “citizenship,” only “the ability to change status.”
He said some undocumented persons entered the country legally—either with visas or as students—but never returned to their own countries. Some of those students, he said, could fill a void in employment after they graduate. “We will have to see how that plays out.”
Neugebauer said another issue facing Southwest farmers and ranchers is the possibility of having the lesser prairie chicken placed on the endangered species list. That listing, many believe, would place undue restrictions on land use. “They have now re-opened the public hearing process and multi-state Fish and Wildlife Departments are coming up with plans.”
He has introduced a bill that would limit another restriction on farmers and allow them to transport higher volumes of fuel. “I’ve introduced a bill that would allow farmers to transport 1,000 gallons of fuel,” he said.
Neugebauer said Congress and the country face serious issues and challenges that will not be easy to meet. “But we’ve had tough days before, and Americans always step up and do the things they need to do.”