Lobbyists gird for big farm bill battles

Lobbyists are girding for a slew of battles on the farm bill, which will hit the Senate floor in early June.

There are many hurdles to getting a farm bill to President Obama’s desk this election year. As a bipartisan group of senators work to pass the measure through the upper chamber, the farm bill is not on the House’s summer agenda.

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The Senate Agriculture Committee bill is widely supported by the farming community, but its $23.6 billion in deficit reduction is too small for some budget hawks.

Lobbyists expect numerous amendments on the floor aimed at reducing farm subsidy spending through payment limitations and means testing. It is not yet clear if an open amendment process will be allowed or if a consent agreement can be reached to limit changes.

Southern senators are also still dissatisfied with the bill because rice and peanut subsidies are cut too deeply in their view, and talks with Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) have not yielded results yet.

“We have no agreement,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), a member of the Agriculture panel, told The Hill.

Chambliss voted against the bill in committee, which passed 16-5 in late April. The other no votes included Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

“We will wind up compromising,” Stabenow said on NPR Thursday. “Whether that gets done completely in the Senate or in conference committee, we will get it done.”

At this point objections by rice and peanut farmers to the bill are not likely to be resolved in the upper chamber, leaving them for an eventual House-Senate conference committee to work out, sources said.

But to get to conference assumes it will pass the House and Senate.

McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, is not fond of the bill. He said, “Instead of including initiatives that streamline the U.S. Department of Agriculture and reform nutrition programs, this year’s bill spends a trillion dollars and achieves insignificant reforms to major programs.”

Yet, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has said he doesn’t view McConnell’s vote as an indication that the Kentucky senator will block it on the floor. Roberts crafted the Senate farm bill with Stabenow, who is up for reelection in 2012.

Stabenow this week said she has the 60 votes she needs to get it through the Senate.

However, the House summer floor schedule released by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Friday does not mention the farm bill.


The Senate Agriculture bill would end a type of farm subsidy known as direct payments. These go to producers based on historical levels of production, meaning that farmers who no longer farm can get the subsidy.

In place of direct payments, which have come under political attack, the Senate bill would set up an Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) shallow loss program of expanded crop insurance.

Rice and peanut farmers do not reap the benefits of this new system, their representatives say.

They are looking to have the choice of substituting countercyclical payments for participation in the ARC insurance.

These payments, which exist in current law but which would be eliminated in the Stabenow bill, kick in when commodity prices fall below a certain target price.

Last fall, Stabenow, Roberts, House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) were able to back optional target prices to satisfy rice and peanuts.

The four lawmakers produced recommendations to the failed debt supercommittee that would have actually increased current target prices and offered expanded benefits.

Congressional sources say that while target prices may have stood a chance if fast-tracked through a supercommittee process, including them in the farm bill make it impossible to pass in the House or Senate floor.

Conservatives who want to see deeper cuts may rally against a bill that distorts the free market as much as countercyclical payments do.

Supporters of the Stabenow-Roberts Senate bill point out that rice and peanuts benefit disproportionately from the current system compared to other major commodities like wheat, corn and soybeans. Rice is planted on 1.3 percent of planted acres, but gets 8.2 percent of government payments, while peanuts is planted on 0.6 percent planted acres but 1.9 percent of payments, they point out.

Backers of rice and peanut farmers say their members will be severely damaged if the ARC crop insurance program is adopted without target prices as an option.

Rice farmers typically do not carry enough crop insurance to prevent deep losses that the ARC does not address.  On top of that, long-grain rice is facing low prices currently. Whereas corn has reached all-time highs, if a new revenue guarantee ARC program is adopted for rice it will lock in low levels of revenue.

Peanut farmers have run 50 models using the ARC system and it fails in all of them, one source said.

These sources are looking to Lucas and Peterson, who are said to be supportive of the option.

“Oh, they love target prices,” one lobbyist said.

A target price supporter discounted the idea that Tea Party House members would rebel against the notion of government set prices.

“It never comes up with them,” one said.  

Key members of the freshman class are seen as allies.

Reps. Martha Roby (R-Ala), Austin Scott (R-Ga.). Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), Steven Fincher (R-Tenn.), Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), Alan Nunnelee (R-Miss.), Steve Palazzo (R-Miss.), Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) and Robert Hurt (R-Va.) are seen as in the peanut camp.  

Lucas and Peterson have a difficult task in crafting a bill that both satisfies the commodity groups and which can pass the House.