D.C. Watch: Rough ride ahead for farm bill

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The House Senate conference committee on the farm bill finally got under way last week.

On Oct. 30, all 41 members of the committee made opening statements. Most talked about compromise and common ground and indicated a real commitment to developing a compromise bill over the next few weeks.

But in addition to the discussions about working together, there were indications that this will not be a smooth process.

Representative Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he will not accept dairy provisions authored by Representative Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and that now he will have the votes to kill it.

But referencing calls for sharp cuts to food stamp (SNAP) spending, Representative Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said, “I am willing to be flexible. I am willing to compromise. But I will not support a farm bill that makes hunger worse.”

Representative Steve King, R-Iowa, said one of his top priorities is to defend his provision that prevents states from blocking the commerce of agricultural goods approved by USDA or the FDA. So it seems that committee members are willing to compromise – except on issues they really care about - which may not be a good formula for success.

At least there is one point of agreement: Leaders of the conference committee from both the House and the Senate agree that they do not want the farm bill to get dragged into the overall budget conference committee that is working to replace sequester spending cuts.

Representative Frank Lucas, R-Okla., chairman of the farm bill conference committee said, “you can’t have our money if you don’t take our policy.”

The budget conference committee also got underway this week, but chances of significant changes have already been lowered. The confrontation over republican efforts to cut social security and democratic efforts to raise taxes has been put aside and the committee will try to find savings in other mandatory programs – and the farm bill is near the top of the list.

The stimulus program passed back in 2009 boosted the level of food stamp benefits by 13.6 percent.

The extra funding for the program expired at the end of October, affecting all of the 48 million people currently receiving food stamps. The end of the stimulus money will reduce the amount spent on the program by about $5 billion per year.

 Several democrats in the House of Representatives sponsored a bill to extend the stimulus benefit through fiscal 2016. However, there is essentially no chance that the House will consider this proposal.

Other news from Washington:

  • Several agriculture organizations are pressuring the House of Representatives to pass immigration reform before the end of the year. Under the current H-2A visa program, immigrants can work for one employer doing one type of work for a period of 10 months before returning to their home country. This program doesn’t work for dairy producers where the work is not seasonal or temporary. However, with only about 15 legislative days left, there is almost no chance that an immigration bill will be passed by the House this year.
  • The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has abandoned its appeal of September 2012 court decision which tossed out the agency’s position limits rule. The rule was an effort by CFTC to reduce price spikes in commodity markets by limiting the share of the market any one firm could control. The CFTC is now working on a modified rule that will provide further legal justification and a more thorough cost-benefit analysis.
  • The number of cattle killed by the early October blizzard in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota is still being tallied, but the South Dakota State Veterinarian puts the estimate for his state at 15,000 to 30,000 head. Both the House and Senate farm bill proposals include renewal of the program that pays ranchers for lost livestock and makes the program retroactive to fiscal 2012. However, since the baseline spending for the program expired in 2011 the House-Senate conference committee will have to take money from other programs to fund the disaster aid for losses experienced this year and in 2012 as well. It remains to be seen which programs they choose to siphon funding from.

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