Farm bill process shows a pulse

The fate of a 2013 farm bill could come down to a key meeting in early February between two dairy policy adversaries: Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Agriculture Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).

The two are slated to try to hash out differences on farm policy after the House returns to work on Feb. 4.

“We’re going to sit down together so we’ll see,” Peterson told The Hill this week.

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Peterson wrote to Boehner this month demanding a commitment to bring a farm bill to the floor this year. He said that he would refuse to participate in any farm bill committee work until he got assurances that the work wasn’t wasted.

Last year, the Agriculture Committee passed a bill that cut the budget deficit by $35 billion over ten years. Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) never allowed it to come up for a vote.

“We can survive on the old farm bill. I wrote it,” Peterson said, referring to farmers in Minnesota and his time as committee chairman under then-speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

This week, he sounded more optimistic that farm reform legislation could get done.

“We’ll have a markup in April or May, sometime around then,” he predicted.

"Last year, I said the farm bill had a 15 percent chance of getting done, now I'm up to 25 percent," one farm lobbyist said Friday.

Peterson said the process would not move forward until the House and Senate resolve differences on budget matters.

This includes figuring out how to replace $85 billion in 2013 sequester cuts to discretionary spending by March 1; avoiding a government shutdown when the stopgap appropriations bill ends on March 27 and figuring out how to raise the debt ceiling again, which looms on May 19.

The 2012 farm bill was a hard lift for House leaders because many conservative Republicans wanted deeper cuts to food stamps and farm subsidies and many Democrats wanted fewer cuts.

“Boehner and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid need to give these guys a [deficit cutting] number,” one farm lobbyist said. At that point, support for cuts could fall into place, the lobbyist argued. A deficit target could come as an offset for turning off the sequester or as part of a debt-ceiling deal.

The Boehner-Peterson meeting is key because on top of that Boehner has long been against U.S. dairy programs. Last year he described them as “Soviet.”

In contrast, for Peterson, the new dairy program in the 2012 farm bill is essential.

The five current dairy programs-- Dairy Product Price Support Program (DPPSP), the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) Program, Federal Milk Marketing Orders, Dairy Import Tariff Rate Quotas, and the Dairy Export Incentive Program—stabilize the market for dairy producers.

The industry, and Peterson, want the system to move away from being based on price to being based on the difference between price and feed costs.

A lobbyist said finding a common policy ground would be very hard.

“I think Boehner wants to get the farm bill done. He doesn’t like supply management provisions in the dairy bill,” the lobbyist said.

On the other hand, Peterson and other conservative Blue Dogs are gaining clout in the new Congress.

To get a four-month debt ceiling increase passed last week, Boehner combined it with a Blue Dog concept—the No Budget, No Pay bill. The bill passed relying on Democratic votes. It passed 285 to 144 with 86 Democrats and 199 Republicans.

In the Senate, Reid this week listed the farm bill as one of his top priorities this year. The 2012 farm bill passed the Senate and Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told reporters she is prepared to go through the markup process again.

The dynamic will be different this year, with Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) taking over as ranking member from Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). Cochran is expected to fight for more generous subsidies for rice, peanuts and other southern crops. Target price based supports in the House committee bill were included to placate southern farmers after having been left out of the 2012 Senate bill.