By Erik Wasson - 07/02/12 09:40 PM EDT
Lobbyists on the farm bill are facing crunch time this week, even with lawmakers in both chambers out of town.
Staff for the House Agriculture Committee are putting the finishing touches on a five-year farm bill that would set the nation on a track to spend at least $900 billion on farm subsidies and food stamps over the next decade.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) is proceeding with a July 11 markup of the measure, despite the leadership scheduling a healthcare repeal vote for that day. Lucas expects the committee to need at least three days to finish because of the large number of amendments.
Lobbyists for farm groups and other interests are using the week ahead of the markup for a final chance to influence the bill’s shape.
For commodity groups dissatisfied with the Senate farm bill, this is a do-over — and for conservatives, it's a chance to win bigger budget cuts to food stamps.
Lucas has made clear he wants a bill that is “fair” to commodities across all regions — a signal to rice and peanut growers angry about subsidy cuts in the Senate bill that they will be taken care of.
The chairman, sources said, also wants to cut at least $33 billion from the deficit — $10 billion more than the Senate cut in its farm bill, which the full Senate passed last month by a 64-35 vote.
The Senate bill got $4 billion in savings from food stamps, $6.4 billion in savings from environmental conservation programs and nearly $20 billion by eliminating direct cash payments and price supports for farmers. But some of the savings was offset with $5 billion in spending on a new crop insurance program to protect “shallow losses.”
Similar cuts to conservation programs are expected in the House, but Lucas is looking for even bigger cuts to food stamps.
Lucas has said he wants to “equalize” cuts to nutrition programs and farm subsidies, and anti-poverty lobbyists are bracing for about $16 billion in cuts to food stamps. Lucas would find his savings by ending automatic food stamp eligibility for welfare and heating assistance recipients.
Groups opposed to the cuts are spending the week strategizing on whether to wait for an eventual House-Senate conference to reverse them.
“The challenges to nutrition funding are much deeper in the House,” said Sophie Milam of Feeding America.
Lucas needs the bigger cuts to satisfy the GOP conference. The full House is on record supporting $134 billion in cuts to food stamps alone.
But Lucas also wants a bipartisan bill that gets the backing of ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).
While fiscally conservative, Peterson is under pressure from his party not to support the level of food stamp cuts that Lucas backed in the budget reconciliation bill this spring. That $32 billion in food stamp cuts was part of the GOP solution to replacing $109 billion in automatic cuts to be triggered on Jan. 2 under last August’s deal to raise the debt ceiling.
Fiscal groups like Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) are using the week to lobby House lawmakers to make deeper cuts than the Senate bill.
“It’s a sad excuse for deficit reduction,” Josh Sewell, of TCS, said of the Senate bill. His group argues that the shallow loss crop insurance could cost much more than advertised, especially if there is a long-term downturn in the market.
TCS wants the House to eliminate the shallow loss program and cut billions more out of crop insurance subsidies to insurance companies used to cover administrative expenses.
The group also wants the House to cut more than the $32 billion in the reconciliation bill.
Other groups are trying to end the U.S. sugar support program, something Peterson will want to save.
The Coalition for Sugar Reform, made up of large food manufacturers, is pressing Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) to offer an amendment to end the U.S. sugar import quota system. The group argues it has momentum after a strong Senate floor vote that ultimately failed.
The American Sugar Alliance says it does not expect cuts to the sugar program in the Lucas draft bill and is preparing for an amendment fight.
Meanwhile, other commodity groups are using this week to seek the best possible deal under a target price safety net, eliminated in the Senate bill, that the House is looking to keep.
Rice and peanut growers do not want to use the shallow loss program created by the Senate. Lobbyists for the two groups want the House to provide price protection in which the government would guarantee rice and peanut farmers price floors. They are seeking the highest target prices possible in order to maximize future profits.
Lucas is planning to continue target prices for all commodities, which has triggered lobbying especially by corn and soybean growers for higher target prices.
Some commodity groups expect that Lucas will be pressured by fiscal conservatives to slim down the shallow loss program, keeping a higher deductable from growers in place to cut costs. The Senate bill's crop insurance kicks in after only a 10 percent loss.