‘Secret’ farm bill faces uphill climb in 2012

The secret farm bill hammered out between the chairmen of the congressional agriculture committees faces stiff opposition and possible doom in the aftermath of the collapse of the supercommittee this week.
 
The chairmen had hoped to piggyback on the supercommittee’s report—which would have enjoyed a fast track through Congress -- to create new farmer payment systems.
 
The heads of the supercommittee announced on Monday that they could not come to an agreement on any deficit cuts.
 

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Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said that with the failure of the supercommmittee their effort had ended.
 
They did not release the full details of their final framework, even to their colleagues.  Farm lobbyists say this reflects the fact they do not have the backing of the committees for their proposal.
 
The chairmen were trying to produce a plan that cut $23 billion from farm programs, less than either President Obama or Tea Party conservatives want to slash. Their plan appears to have fallen short of that goal.
 
Their effort was aided by supercommittee member Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), sources said.
 
Their proposals were controversial among commodity groups as well as among budget hawks and environmental and Third World anti-poverty activists.
 
The framework would eliminate lump sum direct payments to farmers which are controversial since those no longer farming can receive them. Instead, Lucas and Stabenow were looking at a revenue-based supplement to traditional crop insurance, a special loss protection program for cotton, and higher price-based payments for other crops.
 
The last proposal, which is supported by rice and peanut farmers but opposed by other commodity groups, could balloon the deficit when prices drop, budget experts warn.
 
Jon Doggett, vice president of the National Corn Growers Association, said his association as well as bean producers are concerned that with a various options approach, farmers will make planting decisions to receive more generous subsidies rather than respond to market demand. This could cause new, hard won export markets to dry up, he warned.
 
Unless a deal to avoid across-the-board cuts triggered by the supercommittee is forged, the five-year farm bill will be crafted in traditional manner, farm lobbyists said this week.
 
This would involve field and Washington-based hearings with the goal of wrapping up the 2012 farm bill by Memorial Day.
 
In 2007, the farm bill was dragged out well into 2008. Farm policy experts worry that a farm bill fight in the summer would be highly politicized due to the election.
 
There are also worries that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), a longtime critic of farm subsidies, would allow the farm bill on the floor under an open rule, something that would allow Tea Party-backed freshmen to pick it apart to find cost savings. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had allowed the farm bill under a closed rule, but Boehner has said he favors a more open process on spending bills to give the rank and file more of a say. Boehner has largely followed this on budget and appropriations measures. 
 
On top of this difficulty, sources said there is a strong possibility the framework on which Stabenow and Lucas gets tossed aside and the process starts over from scratch.
 
A key blow came when Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) made clear that he was not on board with the secret farm bill, they said.
 
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Roberts said that supercommittee failure means that the farm bill “will now be written in regular order as it should be.”
 
“In recent weeks, the chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have worked on a Farm Bill proposal, largely without my input and the input of the other members of the two committees. The last proposal was so ‘secret’ that I still have not seen final legislative language and scores,” he said.
 
Roberts liked changes to crop insurance but he had other problems with the “direction” of the commodity title.
 
“This process was not the way to write the Farm Bill,” he said.
 
House Agriculture Committee Ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) has not weighed in on the proposal but is expected to next week when the House returns.
 
If Peterson joins Roberts in slamming the Stabenow-Lucas framework, that could further embolden Agriculture committee members to call for a clean slate approach.
 
Sources said that members on the committees have already been complaining that they did not have a chance to weigh in.
 
“Especially in the House, members are saying we didn’t come to Congress and join the Ag committee in order to stand by and watch a farm bill be written without our input,” one farm lobbyist said.
 
“I think the real truth of this is that once Lucas-Stabenow-Conrad finished their ‘secret’ proposal, there was no real consensus or support in the rest of the committee,” Jim French of OxfamAmerica said.