Now that the government shutdown and federal debt limit showdown, are in the rearview mirror – at least for a while -- Congress is taking up other issues like immigration reform and, of course – the Farm Bill.
Senate lawmakers named conferees this week who will sit down with their House counterparts to work out key differences in their proposals. The legislation approved in the Senate, you may recall, included modest cuts in nutrition programs, while the House completely removed all nutrition spending from its version of the Farm Bill.
This week though, the full membership of the conference committee was announced, the first meeting was scheduled and at least one farm-state lawmaker expressed optimism for the bill to be signed into law by the end of the year.
As Congress gets back to the business of governing, rural advocates are hoping a bipartisan conference committee is a sign of progress for legislation that has languished for years.
Negotiations are slated to begin next week. The Farm Bill will be one of the first major post-shutdown tests of Congressional unity.
The Farm Bill, traditionally a bipartisan piece of policy, has been the opposite this cycle. Mired in rhetoric reserved for more contentious measures, the Farm Bill now retreats to the conference committee room where 41 members of the House and Senate will try to work out differences in each of the bills.
House Ag Committee Chair Frank Lucas will lead the discussions with members from both chambers beginning Wednesday. That’s a throwback to past bills that were hammered out in committees and not by leadership.
Despite its name the vast majority of Farm Bill spending supports nutrition programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Formerly known as food stamps, SNAP will likely be the biggest sticking point.
The Senate cut $4 billion in SNAP spending while House lawmakers separated nutrition programs into a separate bill and cut SNAP by nearly $40 billion.
Congress has until January 1 to approve a bill before farm policy reverts to 1940’s-era laws.
Conference Committee membership is large, drawing from farm states and urban areas because of the wide-reaching scope of the bill.
Wednesday’s agenda will include time for all 41 members to make opening statements. After that, however, the path is unclear.
Rep. Steve King, R – Iowa: “The last one and the hardest one is the food stamp issue or SNAP issue. Payment caps, that will be a pivotal issue and that’s probably the second most difficult of the issues to get resolved. I want to get to the end of this thing and I want to get a bill on the President’s desk by the time the snow flies. I know in some parts of Iowa I’m too late for that. But we’re going to try and get this done and I think we get this done by the end of the year.”
Producers are calling for action. South Dakota farmer Kevin Scott says harvest takes priority now, but once the dust settles, it will matter greatly.
Kevin Scott, South Dakota Farmer: "The average farmer doesn't really care much about what's going on there (DC). But we do know that there are critical things that do or do not get done based on whether they're in business or not. And some of those things are the FSA (Farm Service Agency) office being open to handle reporting needs. We had a cattle disaster in western South Dakota and they couldn't report the losses to an FSA office because they weren't open."
An early fall blizzard that slammed South Dakota, killing thousands of the cattle, happened in the middle of the government shutdown. Producers were left without immediate federal support.
But long-term, producers are looking for markets for their commodities. And Scott, who also serves as the American Soybean Association National Director, knows action is needed on the Farm Bill.
Kevin Scott, Farmer: "One of the major things that most farmers probably don't think about is the federal aid that is given to export enhancement. And without those things in place, we can't effectively export our soybeans. And soybeans is sort of important to us right now. That's what we're harvesting. South Dakota exports 60 percent of our soybeans, so without the export enhancements we're in tough shape. So we do need a farm bill in place. And without Congress working, they aren't going to get a farm bill done and we've waited on that for quite a while."
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has long called for action from Congress on a new Farm Bill.
Secretary Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture: “They have to have the policies and the programs of the Farm Bill so that they can continue to provide credit, so that they can continue to expand economic opportunity, they can do a better job of conserving our natural resources, expanding market opportunities both here and abroad. All that important work tied to jobs, tied to incomes, tied to rural life and quality of life. So it’s important to have a Farm Bill.”