Convening in an open-door meeting Wednesday afternoon, 41 legislators are expected to set the tone for a conference that will reconcile House and Senate priorities for five-year food and farm policy.
The meeting marks a significant step in negotiations that have been ongoing, starting with talks prior to the expiration of 2008 farm bill in September, 2012. Legislators in the Senate achieved a compromise, putting forth a version of the bill in June, 2012, but the House never succeeded before the end of the year. As a result, a stripped-down measure was adopted as part of "fiscal cliff" budget negotiations, and portions of the 2008 farm bill were renewed for another year.
Now, as conferees enter into the final debate for 2013 legislation, discussion is anticipated to be contentious at times, centering largely on food stamps and crop insurance.
Lawmakers must reconcile the nearly $40 billion in cuts to nutrition programs proposed by the House with the more than $4 billion suggested in the Senate. And, some House members are holding out for further cuts in the form of work requirements and eligibility restrictions.
On the crop insurance side, there's some concern about conservation compliance requirements in the Senate bill that do not appear in the House version. Additionally, the Senate version requires that farmers with an adjusted gross income higher than $750,000 per year be required to pay more for federal crop insurance, while the House version does not.
Both the monetary cuts and overall parameters of the nutrition title could push lawmakers close to an end-of-the-year ultimate deadline, USA Today reports, even though top officials from both chambers have already met privately to discuss conference issues.
Ag, rural interests still making a play for their priorities, too
Just ahead of the committee kick-off, a coalition of 250 groups Tuesday made a final push to reinforce the importance of the farm bill while urging legislators to retain permanent law provisions that preserve farm bill reauthorizations every five years.
The groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, National Corn Growers Association, U.S. Meat Export Federation and the National Association of Conservation Districts, underscored the need for the permanent law provisions.
"For decades, the threat of reinstatement of the long-outdated policies of the 1938 and 1949 acts have served as strong motivation for Congress to enact new farm bills," the coalition said in a letter to House and Senate agriculture committee members. "Repealing those acts and making the 2013 farm bill commodity title permanent law could make it difficult to generate sufficient political pressure to adjust the commodity safety net provisions should conditions in production agriculture change."
The groups said they are also concerned that if Title I of the 2013 farm bill is made permanent, other farm and rural programs covered in other titles would risk not being reauthorized if the bill expires after five years.
"If this should occur and we revert to permanent law, then programs covering conservation, forestry, research, energy, rural development, horticulture, trade, etc., could be left to the will of the appropriations process, likely with limited funding and little opportunity to update or adjust to meet changing needs in agriculture and rural communities," the letter continued.
The group also encouraged a "meaningful nutrition title" that would be palatable for the White House.