Maybe I should be thanking Congress for doing what they should have done 3 weeks ago. But instead, I guess I'll just hope they can pull up their big boy – or girl – pants and get to work on what needs to be done yet – the farm bill.
After Congress passed its debt deal President Barack Obama hit it on the nail in during part of his speech, "we know that the American people’s frustration with what goes on in this town has never been higher. That's not a surprise that the American people are completely fed up with Washington."
Obama outlined three areas legislators could make progress on right now including the budget, comprehensive immigration reform and the farm bill.
"And we could get them done by the end of the year if our focus is on what's good for the American people," Obama said.
The four agriculture leaders met Wednesday evening and directed their staffs to begin working on farm bill conferencing, although the earliest a full conference can meet is the week of Oct. 27.
The House named 17 Republican and 12 Democrat House farm bill conferees and the Oct. 11 approval of House legislation to conference with the Senate on agricultural and related-issues legislation formally allows for conferencing to begin.
In a radio interview House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said he suspects to have a formal meeting sometime in the near future which will give all members an opportunity to outline their perspectives, to make their opening comments.
"At that point then you would expect us to recess, continue to work out the details amongst all the conferees," Lucas said. "There may be a series of public meetings then on issues where we cannot come to an agreement, maybe the final details on the nutrition title, perhaps the final details on what kind of a real commodity safety net we have."
Lucas said what some would consider "preconference" has allowed items that are similar or close to agree upon and he said they've "accomplished good amount of that."
What lies ahead
On Oct. 11, the House also approved by voice vote a non-binding resolution offered by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., calling on House conferees to adopt an amendment in the Senate farm bill that proposes to reduce crop insurance support for producers whose income is more than $750,000 per year. The Senate approved an amendment with very similar provisions.
Lucas expressed reluctance regarding the resolution because of concerns that it could shrink the overall insurance pool and runs the risk of raising costs for everyone.
Another resolution was approved which would call on House negotiators to seek language that eliminates import limits on sugar, which supporters say would make it easier to manage sugar supplies and help ensure more reasonable prices.
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said these provisions were "unprecedented," in part because the two GOP motions will essentially ask the House to consider positions it has already rejected.
"Conferees are committed to working together and getting a farm bill done but bringing divisive resolutions to a vote and appointing conferees outside the Agriculture Committee has made our jobs a lot harder," Peterson said.
Chuck Conner, president and chief executive officer of National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said the general reception is that it is way past time to pass a farm bill and if Congress gets anything done this year, it will be a farm bill.
Another promising signal came from President Barack Obama who said during a televised statement after the Senate passed its solution for the government shutdown that the farm bill is an area where Congress can make progress this year.
Conner said the commodity title differences are "not overwhelming" and the nutrition funding chasm can be resolved if senior members and the administration can sit down and establish a target between $4 billion and $40 billion. He expected the number to be closer to $4 billion.
Agricultural groups continue to draw their lines in the sand on what they want to see in any final bill.
American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman said the two overarching concerns related to the Senate-House conference on the farm bill are ensuring that permanent law is not repealed and a complete, unified bill continues instead of the House's approach to extend the nutrition title only three years and not five years such as the farm-only farm bill. (Read their letter here.)
AFBF has also pulled its support from a coalition seeking to attach conservation compliance to crop insurance. In addition, the group voiced support for the controversial amendment pushed by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, regarding commerce laws across state lines and would prohibit states from exerting their initiatives such as California's Prop 2 on agricultural products that come from other states.
National Farmers Union also outlined their priorities which also include maintaining permanent law and establishing fixed reference prices for commodity programs and enacting an inventory management tool as part of the dairy safety net, NFU president Roger Johnson wrote to legislators.
Peterson informed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that the House's approach to dairy policy would impact her dairy farmers in California, so she removed Georgia Democrat David Scott from the conference committee, thus removing one no vote on dairy. The Senate and House have different positions on how to handle supply management in the dairy sector and will set up a divided discussion in conference committee.