Amidst a partial US government shutdown and a robust round of finger pointing on raising the debt ceiling to avoid “default”, the US House of Representatives managed to “agree to go to conference” with the US Senate on the 2013 Farm Bill.
The conference committee to resolve differences in these two versions of the 2013 Farm Bill include the following:
Senate Committee on Agriculture conferees
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chairwoman
Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), Ranking Member
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS)
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)
Sen. John Boozman (R-AR)
Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND)
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT)
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA)
Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT)
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO)
House Committee on Agriculture conferees
Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-OK), Chairman
Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), Ranking Member
Rep. Steve King (R-IA)
Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX)
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL)
Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-TX)
Rep. Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson (R-PA)
Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA)
Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AR)
Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL)
Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD)
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA)
Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL)
Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC)
Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA)
Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN)
Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR)
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA)
Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA)
Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-CA)
Rep. Filemon Vela (D-TX)
Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL)
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH)
House Foreign Affairs Committee conferees
Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Ranking Member
Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA)
House Ways & Means Committee conferees
Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), Chairman
Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI), Ranking Member
Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX)
From this writer’s perspective, the list includes many solid supporters of the public-private sector crop insurance program. We have every reason to be optimistic that very little harm will be done to the program. This despite aggressive mis-information by opponents to the program such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and other fringe groups that seek to damage conventional agriculture by any means possible.
Generally when a Farm Bill goes to conference, we have every reason to think that the differences will be ironed out quickly and a conference report issued that can be swiftly voted on with acceptance by both the Senate and the House. The 2013 Farm Bill conference committee will not be so. Numerous pundits have already expressed serious doubts that anything but chaos can be expected as this legislation is debated in conference.
The House Republican leadership (Boehner, R-OH and Cantor, R-VA) have designated Steve Southerland of Florida, the suspected co-author of $4 billion in annual SNAP cuts as their representative. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has countered with Marcia Fudge (D-OH) as her leadership representative. Congresswoman Fudge is an engaged advocate of SNAP benefits and expected to counter the obvious House Republican message. Interesting trivia, Congressman Southerland’s background before coming to Congress was as a mortician and funeral director.
The Senate members appear to be the type that wish to get a deal done and they may wonder how best to deal with the obvious animosity that will surface from House members. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail – but don’t be surprised if nothing happens. SNAP will be the issue that is most likely to derail the conference committee.
In addition to the SNAP funding issue, there is an serious effort by the House to separate the nutrition title (SNAP) from the balance of the Farm Bill. SNAP, according to the House bill, is only authorized for three years, while the balance of the Farm Bill is the usual five year deal. This is another brainchild of the House Republicans with think tank help from the far right Heritage Group. In my opinion, it is an effort to cripple or end various farm programs going forward including crop insurance. Without nutrition votes to help get a Farm Bill across the finish line, we are likely in no man’s land on crop insurance and other programs, after this Farm Bill, if the split actually occurs. It appears that our best hope is that Senate conferees can carry the day, again no help should be expected from the House Republicans and their confusing agenda.
The key crop insurance issues remaining to be decided include a tie to conservation compliance in order to be eligible for premium subsidy plus a “means test” for full premium subsidy. ProAg and the crop insurance industry oppose both of these “features”. The members of Congress have excellent reasons to advocate for both of these items as “common sense reforms”. Unfortunately, they have no answers on how to administer or pay the private sector to manage these “common sense reforms”. As usual, they feel that the A&O in the contract between the USDA and the private sector companies “covers” these expenses. Unfortunately, the present A&O does not cover the current expenses to administer the program, much less figure out how to handle conservation compliance and a means test. Both items are basically “unfunded mandates” designed to give politicians face time, but they are not helpful nor do they save any actual $$ for the program.
In closing, don’t be surprised if this conference does not get any traction. There is still, in my opinion, a chance that some omnibus continuing resolution will be necessary to wrap up a number of unfinished legislative issues including the debt ceiling and 2013 Farm Bill. What this would look like is anyone’s guess. As always, questions or comments are welcome !