Lawmakers seek truce with farm bill

The $1 trillion farm bill will serve as the first test of how deeply the shutdown fight has damaged relations in Washington.

Congress has made the legislation its first order of business as it pivots away from the battles over government funding and the debt ceiling.

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The leaders of the agriculture committees in Congress and K Street lobbyists are eager to put the finishing touches on the bill, which could get wrapped into a year-end budget deal that replaces automatic sequestration cuts.

But some fear Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has vowed to complete the legislation, might be too wounded by the fiscal battle to finish the job.

The same conservative groups that thwarted Boehner’s plans during the shutdown fight — including Heritage Action — could be opposed to the farm bill if there is any compromise on food stamp cuts.

Supporters of the legislation also fear the raw relations between the White House and congressional Republicans will make bipartisan legislating difficult.

The renewed push for the farm bill didn’t get off to an auspicious start

President Obama on Thursday named the farm subsidy and food stamp bill one of his top three near-term priorities, along with a budget deal and immigration reform.

But he erroneously accused the House of having failed to pass its version of the legislation, drawing a rebuke from the House Agriculture Committee.

As the committee pointed out, the House and Senate have appointed members to a conference committee on the farm bill, with a first formal meeting coming as early as Oct. 28. The committee is charged with reconciling the House farm bill, a separately passed House food stamp measure and a Senate farm bill that contains food stamp provisions.

House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) met with Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) on Oct. 16 to plan for the negotiations.

House and Senate aides said no policy decisions were made at the meeting, and leaders are only starting to think about how the farm bill could get wrapped into a newly formed House-Senate budget conference committee, which hopes to reach a fiscal deal by Dec. 13.

It’s clear that the rural lawmakers aim to be able to present a finished product to budget co-chairmen Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

“I really think we are on a separate track,” one aide said. “There is momentum.”

“We want to be prepared and get it wrapped up as soon as possible for whatever comes,” a Senate aide said.

For farm lobbyists, the budget conference presents both opportunity and danger.

The House farm bill cuts some $54 billion from the deficit over 10 years, while the Senate bill cuts $23 billion. The spending cuts could be used to offset a reversal of part of the $91 billion in sequestration cuts that have slashed the discretionary agency budgets this year.

One lobbyist was hopeful that a budget compromise could carry the farm bill to Obama’s desk.

“That could also be the saving grace. That is something we could attach it to,” the lobbyist said. “I don’t think we can pass it as a standalone bill.”

Another lobbyist expressed trepidation.

“They could take a bite out of us one too many times,” the lobbyist said.

Ryan in the past has called for greater cuts to farm subsidy programs that in either the House or Senate bills, sparking some concern in the agriculture community.

The House approach gets $40 billion in its cuts from the food stamp program and authorizes the program for just three years, while extending farm programs for five.

The Senate bill has $4 billion in cuts to food stamps and provides a full five-year authorization.

The huge difference in funding for food stamps is seen as the biggest hurdle for wrapping up the conference.

It is also unclear if conferees will try to resolve the other aspects of the bill —“clear the brush” in the terms of one lobbyist — and leave food stamps for last, or if the issue will hold up other matters as member seek to trade the issue for other policy victories.

Indeed, the House and Senate bills have major differences in the subsidy portion of the farm bills as well. 

Sources say the biggest problem in the commodity title is the difference in how the House and Senate calculate target price subsides. 

Rice, peanut and barley growers favor the House bill, while corn and soybean producers favor the Senate approach.

“There is no happy medium between House and Senate,” one K Street source said.

One key difference is how the House and Senate calculate target price-bases supports, The House uses planted acres up to a cap of historical base acres, while the Senate uses base acres but allows rice and peanuts to update these figures.

A related key difference is how shallow-loss revenue protection is handled.

Opponents of the House approach say it distorts the planting decisions and could invite a World Trade Organization case. Supporters say that the WTO threat is overblown and cite a University of Missouri report this month that projects little if any distortion in the market.

A second major issue is the fact the House bill makes the 2013 farm bill the default permanent law. Agriculture groups, including the powerful American Farm Bureau, oppose that move.

Currently, if a farm bill is not passed every five years, the 1949 farm bill automatically takes effect. In practice, this generally forces Congress to update and revise farm programs.

Other big differences include means testing for crop insurance in the Senate bill and a House provision that prevent states from banning the sale of products based on means of production — a measure aimed at state bans on eggs produced by hens kept in battery cages.

Clarification: This story was updated to more accurately reflect how the House and Senate calculate farm subsidies.

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