This year the Senate took the lead on the farm bill and it's the House that appears to be dragging its feet on getting something passed before the September 30 deadline this fall.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow and Ranking Member Pat Roberts shepherded their farm bill to approval in the Senate July 21. The Senate ag leaders skillfully worked through allowing both germane and non-germane amendments while still wrapping up votes in three days. Senators from both sides of the aisle came behind to support the Senate Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 with a 64-35 vote.
The House Agriculture Committee approved FARRM by a vote of 35-11 in the wee hours of July 12 after having a day-long marathon debate on the bill's 12 titles.
The bulk of the bill has its roots in discussions last fall between House and Senate leaders in budget cut discussions. The Senate version touted $23 billion in savings whereas the House took more off the top with a promised $35 billion in savings.
Direct payments and most of the commodity program as you know it today is no more in the farm bill proposals on the table, allowing for $14 billion in savings. Conservation programs are also cut $6 billion in each chamber, although the leaders write off those savings as program streamlining and consolidation.
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. With approximately 78% of the farm bill used in the nutrition title, it's becoming a harder sell to accommodate the swelling food stamp recipients.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas has a fine line to walk. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has to deal with his right flank who want deep cuts in food stamps and more power given back to the states. However, if Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs are cut too deeply, Democrats won't come behind voting for a farm bill. Hard-core conservation groups have already called for a "no" vote on the bill and the Environmental Working Group is also speaking out against the bill.
The other major change in the House version comes in the commodity title. Despite efforts by Southern senators the only risk management option offered in the approved Senate farm bill was its shallow-loss based Agriculture Risk Coverage to replace the eliminated direct payments, Average Revenue Crop Election (ACRE), counter-cyclical payments and Supplemental Revenue Assistance (SURE).
The House, as expected with Lucas of Oklahoma at the helm, offers a program more palatable to southern producers. The House's Price Loss Coverage (PLC) offers deep-loss coverage and raises target prices by up to 40% to trigger payments to grain and oilseeds farmers. Commodity groups representing corn, soybean and wheat producers have expressed concern that raising target prices could wrongly distort planting decisions.
The commodity title would also allow farmers to enroll some crops or whole farms in the PLC and enroll other crops in the Revenue Loss Coverage (RLC) – a common complaint of the ACRE program which required entire farm participation regardless of crop for the life of the farm bill.
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson said only 13 legislative days remain before the August recess, and added 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.
But Boehner has not committed to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. The bill could go to conference committee with the Senate without a House vote, but would give the House a weaker negotiating position. In addition, anything the House had hoped to have added to the floor would not be allowed. If it goes to conference, both chambers would have to approve the conference bill without changes if it was to be sent to the President.
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