The hard right and the hard left factions in the U.S. House of Representatives make things tough for the moderate middle and create obstacles to passing legislation, including a farm bill.
“But I’m hopeful, always hopeful,” said Rep. Mike Conaway, R- Texas, 11th District.
Conaway, speaking at the 15th annual Southern Peanut Growers Conference in Panama City last week, said he’s seen “no shortage of controversy” in crafting a replacement for the 2008 farm program, which was scheduled to have been revamped in 2012.
The latest disagreement came as House Republicans put forward and passed on partisan vote a farm bill stripped of the nutrition title, which accounts for some 70 percent of farm program expenditures.
“I thought we needed to keep the nutrition bill in,” Conaway said. “I didn’t think it was a good idea to split the nutrition title out. Last week was interesting.”
Weeks ahead might be even more so as the Senate takes up the House version and the bodies convene in conference to hash out differences and then try to wrangle out what to do about nutrition. If kept separate, the current program remains in effect, Conaway said. “The Food Stamp (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) is appropriated entitlement. Unless Congress changes it, it continues as is.”
A battle over the SNAP program doomed an earlier version of the farm bill as Democrats balked at proposed cuts. Some Republicans also bailed on the bill because of too few cuts.
That’s the prevailing climate facing conference committee members as they begin what promises to be a contentious process to come to some sort of agreement on a farm bill. And they have only until Sept. 30 to get it done.”
We’ve put in a lot of work to craft a safety net,” Conaway said. “We’ve been at it for three years and have developed three versions. We will bring a nutrition bill to the floor also, but I’m not sure we will get that done in July. We assume we will not need any Democrat votes to pass a nutrition bill in the House.”
He says the Senate bill is “all together,” and that staff for both the Senate and the House are at work. “House Ag Committee Chairman (Frank) Lucas will chair the conference committee. That will be an advantage. We will still see some controversy.”
The nutrition title will remain the primary source of contention, he said, if it’s included in the farm bill conference.
The Senate bill would cut the nutrition title by $4 billion; the House wants a $20 billion cut. “That will be the toughest issue. I think we will come to an agreement on the other (aspects of the farm bill).”
He also mentioned the threat of a veto without a nutrition title, which he claims will be unnecessary since without change in Congress the nutrition title will remain intact.
Conaway said the nutrition title cuts proposed in the House mostly decrease the rate of spending and would get rid of some income loopholes that currently exist and that allow some to receive food stamps who make too much money to qualify.
“Yes, some people will come off food stamps but they are the ones who make too much money.”
Bob Redding, The Redding Firm, Washington, D.C., said the farm bill currently under debate has been “a very difficult bill,” but controversy in farm program legislation is not that unusual. “This one has been going on for three years,” he said following Conaway’s remarks. He said numerous hearings have been held across the country and several bills have been passed out of committee only to either die on the House floor or never get that far.
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“Last July at this meeting Chairman Lucas said he thought a farm bill was near in the House. They did not get there. The Senate passed a bill but the House failed to.”
He also reminded the audience that the 2002 and the 2008 farm bills faced difficulties. “We had six separate extensions of the 2002 program. In fact, only two farm bills in the last 40 years met established deadlines. So, the struggle in the House is not that unusual.”
He does see reason for haste, however, to avoid farm programs reverting to 1938 or 1949 permanent law, where the Secretary of Agriculture would set prices.
Conaway remarked that a section on the latest House bill would make that program permanent law instead of 1949. “That makes more sense,” he said.
Redding commented on some difference in the Senate and House farm bill proposals. The Senate would support peanuts at $523.72 per ton; the house support would be $535. Both would include separate payment limits and direct payments would be eliminated in both programs. Storage and handling would remain in each bill.
Redding also suggested that farmers should not be overly concerned about the nutrition title. “That will be worked out with the House and Senate leaders. Concentrate instead on Title I. At the end of the day, we will have a farm bill and a nutrition bill. We want to get it done before the Sept. 30 deadline.”
He said an in-industry controversy over target prices is also a bit disconcerting. Virginia-Carolina growers have not supported a higher target price, he said. “We continue to talk.”
Redding also noted that former threats to peanut legislation are no longer in play.
Former Senators Rick Santorum, R-Penn., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., no longer hold office. “Those efforts are not as much of a problem now, but we have the potential for insignificance. Support for agriculture is high but our numbers are decreasing. We don’t have as many votes in congressional districts and that leaves us vulnerable as is the case with cotton and rice. It’s difficult to raise money for candidates.”
He said support in peanut states, especially with Democrats is not as strong. “Most peanut states are republican,” he said. “We have to do a better job of supporting candidates in the future. We have to work very hard to keep a good farm bill in place.”
That hard work and constant involvement industry wide may become even more important as deadlock in Congress and waning support for rural America continues. Agriculture cannot afford to become insignificant. It is too important, Conaway said. “Americans enjoy the safest, most abundant food supply in the world—because of farmers’ hard work. We have to give them an insurance plan.”