Farm bill, a year overdue, still rolling on slow track
Senators say the House would set grain and soybean support prices too high and unwisely base payments on planted acres rather than a farm's historical plantings of subsidized crops. And the Senate wants a lower cap on total payments to individual farmers.
Negotiators could resolve the farm program issues fairly quickly, say analysts, while food stamps may prove intractable.
ROOM FOR COMPROMISE?
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor drove the sweeping cuts to food stamps, also favored by a Tea Party-influenced bloc of Republicans. Democratic leaders in the Senate have rejected the Republican cuts out of hand. All House Democrats voted against the $40 billion package and were nearly as united in June in voting against a $20 billion cut.
And the White House has threatened twice to veto large cuts in food stamps, the major U.S. anti-hunger program. Instead, it wants Congress to find savings in farm subsidies and crop insurance spending.
A couple of Republican senators suggested this week that $20 billion in food stamp cuts would be palatable, hinting at a possible compromise. Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas was upbeat on Thursday, saying, "The farm bill is closer to being completed than it has been in a long time."
House-Senate conferences, as the negotiations are known, are typically the province of a select band of senior lawmakers, with congressional leaders keeping a close watch. For example, when three lawmakers wrote the compromise 2002 farm bill, they met in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's conference room.
Oklahoma Republican Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, would be chairman of the farm bill conference under congressional protocol. Lucas backs food stamp cuts, expansion of crop insurance and higher crop support prices.
But House leaders have avoided negotiations for months and may want to write the bill themselves. Under that approach, they would hand a version to conferees for rubber-stamp approval. "My guess is they are not going to conference," said Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the small-farm group National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
The 2008 farm law expired a year ago and was extended in December through September 30.
Crop insurance and crop subsidies, as well as food stamps, will continue to operate when the 2008 law expires for the second time. Crop insurance and food stamps are permanently authorized. Crop subsidies run through the end of the marketing year for 2013 crops, which is well into 2014.
"I don't think the farm economy will even know that it's gone on October 1," said Bob Young, chief economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Patrick Westhoff, director of the think tank Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, said January 1, 2014, would be a natural deadline for action. That's when dairy prices could double under a 1949 "permanent" farm law that would kick in.
The policy crunch would come when 2014 crops are ready for harvest if the "dairy cliff" - the jump in milk prices - doesn't force action.
(Editing by Ros Krasny and Douglas Royalty)