Let the debates begin! The House and Senate Agriculture Committees will give us this year's first full dive into whether any major changes will be acted on from last year's farm bill discussion when they begin markups on their bills.
In today's political environment, there isn't always the opportunity for open debate. But that won't be the case May 14 in the Senate Agriculture Committee and May 15 in the House Agriculture Committee when leaders will allow for open amendments to the farm bill.
Chairwoman Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Chairman Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., will again be behind the gavel directing some of the most contentious battles in agriculture. As is typically the case with agricultural policy, most won't fall on partisan lines, but we'll hear an open discussion from both sides of the aisle on controversial issues.
Crop insurance, dairy assistance, sugar program reform, egg bill, food stamp assistance – those and many more will share the spotlight as to where farm policy goes next.
Stabenow's bill offers many similarities to last year's version (read title summary here) with a targeted savings of $23 billion, and as expected offers the target price option sought by southern producers and her new ranking member Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.
On the House side, its savings are more ambitious with a total of $38 billion, with $20 billion coming from food assistance and $18 billion from the other titles. View a summary of the bill and full text.
The Senate's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) remains virtually unchanged from last year’s bill in both program and funding, with targeted savings of about $4 billion. The bill closes loopholes and attempts to eliminate fraud and misuse. The House's $20 billion cuts in SNAP may not be enough to satisfy the more budget-conscious House, but does call for more than last year's proposed $14 billion in cuts.
For starters, both marks have last year's Dairy Security Act which is backed by the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and authored by Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn. There again will be a debate over whether supply management is needed or desired, as processors and free market thinkers oppose the idea of the government intervening with milk supplies.
There was some chatter that Stabenow was going to include in her mark the bill which she cosponsored that codifies the agreement between the Humane Society of the United States with the United Egg Producers, but in the end, it wasn't in her mark.
Chad Gregory, president of United Egg Producers, which represents farmers who produce nearly 90% of all eggs in the U.S., expressed "utter disappointment" in fellow livestock and farm groups who were "paranoid" that the language would affect them.
“Without this legislation, egg farmers will go out of business; states will lose jobs; consumers will see disruption and price affects in their local grocery stores; and grocers and restaurant companies will find interstate commerce in eggs grinding to a halt,” he said.
Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said she still expects someone will offer an amendment on the House and/or Senate floor.
Crop insurance is the sacred cow for farmers in the farm bill, but you can expect legislators to call for farmers to pick up more of the premium tab to help pay for everything from conservation to food assistance.
An alternative conservation title bill was introduced last week by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and 12 original cosponsors. Portions of the proposal would limit government cost-share for crop insurance on crops grown on land converted from sod grass or some wetlands. Commodity groups are concerned about the implications of this approach.
Environmental and agricultural groups had joined forces ahead of the chairman marks release in hopes of obtaining language to prevent conservation compliance from being attached to crop insurance payments. However, that was not included and likely will again come up for debate in the ag committee and on the Senate floor. Reports indicated Lucas does not support the agreement.
Thatcher said as many as 100 amendments could be introduced in the House side, which could make a repeat of the 13-hour mark-up not out of reach Wednesday. The Senate powered through their mark-up in a record 4.5 hours last year. We'll see if they can repeat it this year.
Once out of the committee, there's hope for floor time yet this summer. In a memo to House Republicans May 3, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said he expects a "heavy legislative workload in the summer months leading up to the August recess" and the farm bill will be included. On the Senate side, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has also said he wants to see the farm bill passed.
But remember, saying and doing can be two different things in the Beltway.