The House Agriculture Committee began to work through over 100 amendments to the leaders' farm bill proposal during a markup July 11, powering through all 12 titles of the farm bill into the early hours of July 12. The committee's 35-11 approval sets up House floor action and may allow for conference committee even if the House does not bring it to the floor.
The proposed Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act Act will contribute more than $35 billion to deficit reduction with $14 billion coming from the farm safety net, $6 billion coming from conservation programs, and $16 billion from nutrition reforms.
One of the most striking differences between the Senate and House version is the amount of nutrition cuts or savings, from the $4.5 billion in the Senate compared to the House's $16.5 billion. Heated discussion focused on the impact of proposed changes which the Congressional Budget Office said could impact as many as 2.8 million recipients.
Attempts to change the nutrition title to the Senate's approved $4.5 billion was voted down, as well as an attempt to increase nutrition savings beyond the proposed $16 billion.
Rep. Reid Ribble, R., Wisc., said attempts to paint the cuts as draconian are wrong since it amounts to a reduction of $1.65 billion per year. In addition, since the height of recession when unemployment was at 10%, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has increased $22 billion. "This alleged cut is really a decrease in the rate of growth" in the program, Ribble said.
Both leaders warned that they felt the $16 billion struck the right balance on what would be needed to get a farm bill out of committee as well as position it for approval on the House floor.
"In a perfect world, this farm bill would look different," chairman Frank Lucas, (R., Okla.) conceded during debate of the food stamp program. "I sincerely believe the intention is not to make anyone who qualifies suffer, but by the same token we're trying to achieve savings here. And these compelling reforms touch all areas…I believe this is the direction we must go to restore confidence in these programs."
Dairy and sugar changes fail
A former committee chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R., Va., proposed two of the most controversial amendments in the commodity title regarding dairy and sugar policy, two issues that historically experience division. Both programs were able to preserve the original chairman's mark.
Goodlatte's attempt to strip the supply management component of the dairy market stabilization program failed by a margin of 29-17. The National Milk Producers Federation welcomed the support to keep the program as originally designed by ranking member Collin Peterson, D., Minn., whereas dairy processors were disappointed with the vote's outcome.
In defending the program Peterson said he's been working on dairy reforms for 2.5 years and despite Goodlatte and Rep. David Scott, R., Ga., doing "what they think is right, it is a recipe for disaster," Peterson said, adding history has shown that producers cannot afford another year like 2009 where prices plummeted and supply soared.
Peterson added he's not a huge fan of stabilization however this approach will help transition this program to the private sector and help producers get used to using margin insurance as part of livestock risk management.
No changes were made to the conservation title
The committee also approved an amendment that would set up an undersecretary for foreign services to assistant in advocating for U.S. agricultural trade.
Another debate centered on USDA's closure of Farm Service Agency offices. Rep. Leonard Boswell, (D., Iowa) introduced an amendment that passed requiring USDA to "take a breath and reconsider" office closures.
An amendment passed by a 34-12 vote which requires the USDA report within 90 days to Congress on how it plans to change country-of-origin labeling to prevent retaliatory actions by Mexico and Canada. The National Farmers Union tweeted the move was an "underhanded way to dismantle COOL behind closed doors."
An amendment introduced by Rep. Steve King, R., Iowa, to reinforce the Commerce Clause by asserting the right of a state to trade agriculture products with another state passed by a voice vote. If it had been in place, it would have prevented states such as California and Ohio from approving their laws to mandate production practices such as Prop 2.
The committee approved an amendment that repeals the GIPSA rules finalized since 2008 and prohibits USDA from finalizing remaining rules. Congressional members shared that it was needed in response to USDA's overarching reach in its initial proposed rules. Peterson warned that the move is "opening up one huge can of worms and I don't think it's smart."
Peterson said only 13 legislative days remain before the August recess, and said if the House leadership fails to bring up this farm bill before the recess it will jeopardize one of the economic bright spots of the nation's fragile economy.
"We cannot wait for the mess that will occur during the lame duck and, frankly, I think an extension of current farm policy potentially creates more problems than it solves. I am hopeful the House leadership gets this right and brings the bill to the floor shortly, so we can ultimately finish the bill in September," he said.
Jacqui Fatka covers policy issues for Farm Futures and its sister publication Feedstuffs.