Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees missed their deadline by two weeks and counting as they try to come up with an agreement that will cut $23 billion from agriculture spending over the next 10 years. Their new hoped for deadline is sometime this week to get those recommendations to the Congressional Super Committee which itself has a November 23 deadline to get its work done.
Last week in Kansas City, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and others who regularly get in the fray when it comes farm bill time talked about the differences agriculture and other segments of our economy face this time around, in light of the overall budget crisis. Secretary Vilsack told the National Association of Farm Broadcasting that the agriculture committee leaders and the Super Committee have to come up with a program “for the two percent of the population that is farming that the other 98% of the population can understand.” He said the new farm bill has to develop a system that “helps people when they need help, not like the direct payments which people outside of agriculture don’t get.”
While most believe an agreement on budget cuts for agriculture is in the works, the concern is where those cuts will come from. It seems commodity programs will lose between 13 and 15 billion dollars over the next ten years, or about 25% of the total now spent on those programs. Conservation will lose about six billion, about 10% of the total in that area and food and nutrition programs will see about four billion dollars taken away. Mary Kaye Thatcher, Senior Director of Government Affairs with the American Farm Bureau Federation, told farm broadcastersin Kansas City last week that most of the 15 titles for a new farm bill are pretty much a done deal but “they’re stuck on the commodity title.” To make matters worse she said the expected deal at the end of last week “suddenly imploded as it’s as partisan as I’ve ever seen right now in Washington.”
The same old problem seems to be the reason—regionalism. Many Congressional members from the South and West feel the current language favors corn and soybean growers. Both Thatcher and Roger Johnson, President of the National Farmers Union, feel the last thing we need in a new farm bill, which the Super Committee could pass before Thanksgiving, is a hodge podge of separate programs for cotton, rice, wheat, peanuts, corn and soybeans that will lead to a more complicated bill.
As this week starts and the House returns from a week’s recess, there is “still nothing on paper from the agriculture committees”, Johnson told us in frustration, as the chairs and ranking members continue to try and advance the process. Most involved in the process feel the challenge is finding an answer to the revenue and income protection systems in a new bill. To cut budget expenditures, the need, according to Thatcher, is to “get a program that has farmers getting their signals from the market place and not the government.” She added that “to do it any other way is just the worst thing that could happen.”
Both Thatcher and Johnson give the chairs and ranking members of the agriculture committees credit for trying to give the Super Committee direction on budget cuts since most other areas of the economy don’t have the same urgency to get involved. Not everyone agrees, though. Many in Congress feel the process is advancing under a veil of secrecy. Wisconsin Third District Congressman Ron Kind and 27 of his colleagues from both sides of the aisle wrote a letter to the Super Committee urging them not to consider any recommendations from the agriculture committees. They say the whole Congress has not been included in the conversation and because the Super Committee will probably be the select group that decides farm policy for the next four years and all they are charged with is cutting the budget by one and a half trillion dollars, not changing farm policy.
Thatcher and many others believe having the Super Committee take care of the budget cuts and the farm bill at one time is probably the best way to go right now. The rules of the Super Committee don’t allow for individual members of Congress to hold up the entire process over individual concerns and she said, “if we try to cut $23 billion this year, we have to rewrite the farm bill to do it and it would be the worst of all evils if we had to come back next year and rewrite the farm bill. This may not be the prettiest option, but I’m not sure it’s not the best option.” If the agriculture leaders do get something on paper in the next few days, the Super Committee could take a simple up or down vote on the recommendations and end the matter. While nothing is for certain in Congress, Thatcher does feel there is an 80% chance those recommendations on agriculture policy will get to the Super Committee by November 23rd with the Congress passing it by December 23.