Farm Bill Conferencing Falling Into Place

House votes to move forward on farm bill conference although commodity title woes add to deep divisions over nutrition spending.

There has been plenty of speculation as to the path forward on the farm bill, but more pieces are falling into place to potentially set up final passage.

Friday afternoon the House approved by voice vote a motion to go to conference with the Senate. Saturday House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, also named conferees.

Earlier in the day Friday during the Rules Meeting consideration House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said although constant dialogue has laid the groundwork has between House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders, a formal conference will allow the two chambers to "iron out big challenging differences" that exist in writing a new farm bill.

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."

"There are challenging issues yet to overcome, but we have a solid team of negotiators in place. I am confident we can reach consensus and send a five-year farm bill to the president," Lucas said.

The conferees include Lucas and his five subcommittee chairs – Reps. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, Rick Crawford, R-Ark., Steve King, R-Iowa, Austin Scott, R-Ga., and Glenn Thompson, R-Pa.

Others on the Republican roster include Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., Randy Neugebauer, R- Texas, Martha Roby, R-Ala., Kristi Noem, R-S.D., Rodney Davis, R-Ill., Jeff Denham, R-Calif. and Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., on behalf of leadership.

For Democrats House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., is joined by Reps. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., Jim Costa, D-Calif., Tim Walz, D-Minn., Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., Jim McGovern, D-Mass., Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Calif., and Filemon Vela, D-Texas.

On behalf of the House Foreign Affairs Committee conferees are Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., Tom Marino, R-Pa., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.

For the House Ways and Means Committee Republicans serving include Rep. Dave Camp, R- Mich., and Sam Johnson, R-Texas. Ranking member Sandy Levin, D-Mich., was also named.

During the first time the House brought its bill to the floor, Southerland's amendment attaching work requirements to receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for able-bodied adults was said to be the "poison pill" that derailed final passage in the House and infuriated House Democrats.  

Peterson was reportedly disappointed in the naming of Southerland and said it will only make the negotiations more difficult. The House has passed a nutrition title with $40 billion in cuts over 10 years whereas the Senate has only approved a bill with $4 billion in cuts over the same time period.

Steve Kopperud, executive director of Policy Directions, said although progress is moving on establishing the conference committee, it's unlikely they're going to be rushing into a small room to iron out differences as quickly as everyone hopes.

And those differences are becoming greater, rather than less, in recent weeks. Although the nutrition title hard cut numbers of $4 billion versus $40 billion are the easiest for some conservatives less familiar with the farm bill to conceptualize, the commodity title has gained considerable traction in recent weeks with concerns over trade implications and impact on planting decisions.

"The commodity title is a huge barrier and much more than people thought a month ago," Kopperud said.

In September the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Foreign Trade Council sent a letter to the House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders, asking them to guard against a WTO challenge and the potential for retaliation.

Kopperud noted that farm bill conferences typically do revert to more regional rather than partisan differences. Many of the Midwest commodity groups have criticized how the House and somewhat the Senate version tilts in favor of southern crops with high target prices for crops and could distort planting decisions and significantly impact returns if implemented (see chart).

A new analysis out of University of Missouri's Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute found that the House bill provides more support than the Senate bill to rice, barley and peanuts, while the Senate bill provides more support than the House bill to corn and soybeans.

FAPRI calculated that under the Senate bill, a farmer with one base acre for each planted acre could expect the following average program benefits: $25 for corn, $12 for soybeans, $10 for wheat or barley, $27 for upland cotton, $40 for rice and $70 for peanuts. Under the House bill, the various program benefits would be $22 per acre for corn, $10 per acre for soybeans, $12 for wheat, $27 for upland cotton, $49 for barley, $82 for rice and $199 per acre for peanuts.

Absent from the list of House conferees is Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, a consistent proponent of Midwest crop's approach to decouple payments from current-year planting decisions in the bill’s Commodity Title. During farm bill debate Gibbs proposed an amendment that would have set the target price for all crops at 55% based on an Olympic average and changes it to base acres rather than planted acres. He withdrew the amendment because he said he was promised by Lucas he would have the opportunity to enhance the final product during conference.

Gibbs' view is shared by other Midwest senators already named to the conference committee, most notably Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

The question remains, "How do you maintain at least some base of support for a broader bill if people feel like they're being shafted?" Kopperud said of the spats between southern and Midwest Congressional members.

"The worst thing you can do is have a conference report that they attempt to finalize at the end of the day and a third of the conferees don't sign it," he said.

For the Senate farm bill conferees had already been named. They include Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Max Baucus, D-Mont., Sherrod Brown, D- Ohio, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo. For Republicans it includes Ag Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., John Boozman, R-Ark., and John Hoeven, R-N.D.


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