October now appears to be the next target date for completion of a five-year farm bill, a process that has undergone numerous gyrations, false starts and sudden stops for the past 18 months.
But obstacles, some of them substantial, remain before a bill ever gets to President Obama’s desk.
Nutrition, says House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, will be a factor when the House and Senate conference committee meets, likely not before early October. But a large obstacle, Syria, stands in the way before getting to a conference that many had hoped would begin shortly after the August recess.
“The biggest challenge is persuading colleagues in the House and Senate just how important production agriculture is. We not only provide food for this country but to the people of the world.” (See http://deltafarmpress.com/blog/if-farm-bill-doesn-t-address-hunger-what-s-it.)
But Lucas, speaking at the Second Annual Southwest Ag Issues Summit in Oklahoma City today, is, if not totally optimistic, at least hopeful of getting a farm bill passed this fall.
“We have a vehicle that is conferenceable,” he said. That vehicle includes a Senate version that will trim significantly less money from the ag budget than does the House bill and a House version that does not include a nutrition title.
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He said leaders in the House want to vote on a $40 billion nutrition reform bill before going to conference committee. “When we get that done, or not, we can appoint conferees and go to committee to work out differences. Whether that’s with a $40 billion reform or the $23 billion or $24 billion from the Senate, we have to wait and see.”
Other challenges include budget concerns and the details included in each bill that affect the level of protection afforded commodities.
“We have included 11 of the 12 titles,” in the House bill, Lucas said. Some legislators and some outside interests have pushed to get a nutrition bill completed before going to conference. Another option is to pass a “farm bill only farm bill” with no change to nutrition programs.
“We have to preserve the resource,” Lucas said. “We have to save the core funding for crop insurance and this is a fight we will have to have every year in appropriations bills, even with a five-year farm bill.”
CRP funding cut
He said funding for the conservation reserve program would be reduced—cutting acreage from 32 million to 24 million. “It’s a voluntary program,” he said, and an important one. “From my perspective, I cannot make Mother Nature cooperate, but I can help prevent us from engaging in policy mistakes of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘80s. I’ll work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to develop policies that don’t repeat past mistakes.”
Lucas said obstacles exist outside Congress, people who say, “We don’t need a farm safety net or subsidies for crop insurance. They are wrong. They say it doesn’t matter where food comes from, and they complain about levels of inspection for food items.
“U.S. agricultural producers have wonderful advantages and we have to preserve American agriculture. The safety net matters. We now have to show our bankers that we use risk management tools. The bankers demand it. So the tools have to be there.
“A real challenge is knowing how much we have to spend and stretching it to do what we have to do to provide an effective safety net.”
Preserving crop insurance, even though details may differ, is one area of agreement in the House and the Senate, Lucas said
He said watching the farm bill go down in defeat earlier in the year was a devastating blow. “There is no more painful experience than to lose your bill on the floor of the House,” he said. “I appealed to my colleagues to do the right thing and to show that we are not as dysfunctional as everyone believes.”
The vote failed.
But three weeks later the House passed, on a party line vote, a “farm bill only farm bill” that can be debated in conference committee.
Extension not on table
Another farm bill extension is not on the table and would be considered only as a last resort. “I prefer to complete it and be done with it,” Lucas said. “But I wanted to complete a farm bill last year.”
He said rumors of a one-year or a two-year farm bill extension have been floating around and that some may try to stretch the issue out until another election puts another new batch of legislators in office who would want to take even more money out of rural America. “I will not let that happen,” he said.
The House will be in charge of the conference, and Lucas will chair the committee, which will be an advantage. “That means we choose the base text,” he said.
He says he’ll stick to his guns as the process unfolds.
“I will pledge, as a product of a tough place to farm and ranch and as a product of an education from Oklahoma State University, that I will do the right thing.”
He said the farm bill must:
- Represent all commodities and regions;
- Give farmers and ranchers the opportunity to make decisions on what is best for their specific farms, their families and their nation;
- Do no harm to crop insurance; and
- establish farm bill base concepts for years to come.
Lucas said immigration reform likely will not happen anytime soon. “Don’t hold your breath for the rest of the year. We have Syria, the farm bill and other issues pending.”
The sticking point with immigration reform, he said, will be two phrases that may sound similar: “pathway to citizenship” in the Senate version and “pathway to legal status,” preferred by the House. “There is a huge difference but the pathway to legal status is doable,” he said.
He said the issue with Syria is complex. “My observation is this: How do we pick out the good guys, and what if there are no good guys?”
He left the Summit shortly after his talk to attend a briefing on Syria but said he does not think the House will okay a strike.