Farm bill chiefs defend turf in conference

The leaders of the new House-Senate farm bill conference laid down the law on Wednesday, declaring that they, and not the leaders of the new budget conference committee would have the final say on the nearly $1 trillion 2013 farm bill.

“The budget committee will not be writing the farm bill,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said. “We will write; we will edit; we will offer responsible deficit reduction.” 

She noted that she serves on both of the new conference committees.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said the budget committee could count whatever savings the farm bill achieves — after the fact.

“You can’t have our money if you don’t take our policy,” Lucas said. 

The chairmen spoke after the first meeting of the farm bill conference committee, which came hours after budget conferees started their own quest to find a deficit deal.

Lucas said that he is now “comfortable” that the budget conference, led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would not interfere with the farm bill process.  Ryan has called for deeper cuts to farm subsidies than in the House-passed farm bill. 

The farm bill conference leaders said they would work every day during the upcoming recess to try to form an agreement but no second meeting has been set. 

“It depends on how the process evolves,” Lucas said.   

During 2 1/2 hours of opening statements Wednesday, it was clear that no progress has yet been made on reconciling the differences between the House and Senate farm bills.

The biggest difference is between a $40 billion cut to food stamps in the House version and a $4.5 billion cut in the Senate bill.

Stabenow noted that the cuts come on top of the $11 billion across-the-board cut to food stamps set to hit on Friday as the result of the expiration of the Obama stimulus law. Lucas said that that addressing that round of cuts could be part of a final deal on food stamps.

Conservative Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), placed on the committee by House leaders, is spearheading the push for cuts to food stamps. He called them common-sense reforms that would improve efficiency. 

Democrats decried the cuts throughout the meeting. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) suggested that the cuts could increase the number of mentally ill beggars on city streets.

On farm subsidies, the division between lawmakers representing Midwest districts — where corn and soy are grown — and Southern lawmakers representing cotton, peanut and rice growers was on full display.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said the House farm bill distorts the market by coupling target price supports with production, while supporters of price-based supports, like Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said such claims are based on misinformation.

Other top divisions in the opening meeting involved the Senate bill’s tying of crop insurance to complying with environmental measures, the size of the loss needed to trigger competing shallow-loss protection plans, reforms to Country-of-Origin labeling requirements for meat, and Rep. Steve King’s (R-Iowa) amendment stopping states like California from banning products based on the means of production. The King amendment is aimed at stopping California from banning eggs laid by hens living in tiny battery cages.