D.C. Watch: Work continues on farm bill

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There is still work going on behind the scenes on the new farm bill. The architects of the Senate proposal, Senators Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Pat Roberts, R-Kan,, say they are open to changes to the bill as long as they fit within the budget.

Senators from areas where rice and peanuts are grown may try to improve the safety net for producers of those and other crops, but it is not clear where cuts in other programs would be made, or if Senators from other parts of the country will agree to proposed cuts. The farm bill is expected to face a wide range of critics once it comes up before the full Senate.

The House Agriculture Committee is expected to write its own farm bill, and it may be a lot different from the proposal in the Senate. For one thing, the House bill will have less money to work with because of the fiscal 2013 budget plan approved a couple of weeks ago.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., says his plan will be more fair to producers of southern crops and the plan will almost certainly cut funding for food and nutrition programs by more than the Senate bill does (see next item).

Assuming both the Senate and the House pass farm bills that are different, those differences will have to be worked out in a joint House-Senate conference committee.

The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture held a hearing last week discussing nutrition programs. The House Agriculture Committee has already voted to cut $33 billion from nutrition programs over the next decade, more than eight times the $4 billion in cuts included in the Senate’s farm bill proposal over that period. About 46 million Americans participate in the SNAP program (formerly called food stamps) and the cost of the program totaled $75.7 billion in fiscal 2011.

The House is working feverishly on bills designed to head off automatic cuts in defense spending, scheduled to go into effect next January. Under the Budget Control Act approved last summer, automatic spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years kick in next January. About half of those cuts would come out of the defense budget. The House wants to divert most of the cuts in defense spending to domestic programs instead and roll back parts of the health care law and the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul. But the plan stands no chance in the Senate – at least until after the fall elections.

There may be some real wheeling and dealing in a lame-duck session after the election, however, since the Bush-era tax cuts will expire at the end of the year, payments to Medicare providers will be slashed, and the U.S. debt will reach the debt ceiling unless Congress acts to raise it yet again.

A group of industrial and metropolitan water users will be allowed to intervene in a lawsuit that is attempting to force EPA to set numeric standards for maximum nitrogen and phosphate concentration in the Mississippi River Basin. Agriculture groups oppose the use of numeric standards in the basin because of the costs and other burdens to farmers.

A spokesman for the group of water users says the adoption of numeric standards would “…lead to new and/or different TMDLs (total maximum daily loads) and water quality-based NPDES requirements that would directly affect the financial status, business or municipal operations and economic viability of coalition members”.

Congress also needs to take action to grant Russia most-favored nation status, now called “permanent normal trade relations”, before the end of the year. Russia will become a member of the WTO by the end of the year and the U.S. could be exempt from the benefits of lower trade barriers if the law is not changed. The current law requires an annual review of Russia’s human rights policies and the most-favored nation trade status must be “unconditional” according to WTO rules. Congress did have to take similar action when China joined the WTO a few years ago.

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