Wednesday, December 04, 2013

After infighting threatens final Farm Bill talks, House and Senate chairs report progress today

UPDATE: "Farm bill negotiators broke new ground in an hour-long meeting Wednesday morning," and the American Farm Bureau Federation "urged rival commodity groups to 'close ranks' behind a final package this winter," David Rogers reports. "After weeks of floundering there was genuine hope that the pieces of a deal could be coming together."

The inability of parties and lobbies in Congress to see eye-to-eye on key points that affect millions of Americans is delaying the Farm Bill, and threatening to kill it, David Rogers reports for Politico. "Cotton and rice recently took a shot at corn and soybeans in a letter about proposed payment limits in both bills," Rogers notes. "Corn and beans went directly after House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) last week — threatening to kill the Farm Bill and seek a two-year extension that would run past his tenure as chairman."

Instead of getting closer to agreeing on a bill, the House and Senate conference committee members seem to be getting farther apart, with tensions rising as politicians and lobbyists vent their frustrations with each other, Rogers writes. Lucas told him, "The traditional coalition has broken down." Rogers adds: "And to a surprising degree, commodity groups are instead picking sides between Lucas and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)."

And it's not just politicians hashing out their differences, but lobbies, such as the National Corn Growers Association and American Soybean Association, which sent a letter to top Congressional negotiators that some took as a threat, Rogers reports. "By suggesting a full two-year extension of current farm programs, NCGA and ASA were seen as running out the clock on Lucas’s chairmanship, which is slated to end with this Congress a year from now." Lucas told Rogers, "For some folks to believe they don’t have to be part of the family anymore makes it a little difficult. As chairman, I’m kind of like a parent sitting at the table. I’m trying to make sure everybody gets their fair portion as the plates go around. I’m trying to make sure the biggest kid doesn’t shove all the little kids off the bench."

Rogers writes, "Farm bill infighting among rival commodity interests is nothing new. But the bad blood and distrust now are exceptional. Indeed, unlike the last two farm bills, Lucas and Stabenow have significantly less money for the commodity title. The House has already defeated one farm bill this past summer. And the talks now are focused on how to reconcile two competing visions of a new farm safety net to replace the current system of direct cash payments to producers. In this context, the continued infighting is not just bloody — it could prove self-defeating."

If and when agreement is found, "It’s almost certain the new Farm Bill will include two options in its commodity title: a Senate plan geared to revenues, a House alternative keyed more to production costs," Rogers writes. "Both promise to save money, but each has run into trouble for insisting that farmers be paid on what they actually plant — not according to the artificial 'base acre' formula used now for direct payments." (Read more)

The ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, has "grown increasingly skeptical" of that approach, Agri-Pulse reports, in a story that lays out five big reasons the bill may not pass: A breakdown among the chairs and ranking members, lack of a "sweet spot" for a compromise on food-stamp cuts, dairy issues that divide Lucas and House Speaker John Boehner, finding a House majority for any compromise bill, and the possibility that President Obama would veto the bill if food-stamp cuts are too high. Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but offers a trial here.

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