WASHINGTON AG LEADERS HAVE A LOT OF WORK TO DO

     So do we have a farm bill or not?  That is the question a lot of people, including agriculture committee leaders in the U.S. House and Senate, can’t seem to answer as we get closer to 2012 and a new farm bill.

That’s partly because they all apparently didn’t participate in the exercise earlier this year that came up with some kind of bill that would cut $23 billion from farm programs in the next 10 years.  Of course it may have all been for nothing anyway since that Congressional Super Committee couldn’t agree on how to cut a total of about one and a half trillion dollars from the federal budget.

     Along the way we also found out that only three people may have put that proposal together that was advanced to the Super Committee.  The ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, now says he wasn’t involved in the discussions at all and he still hasn’t seen the text of what was proposed.  Others are saying he’s not alone.  Nobody reportedly has seen the complete document because no one will produce it if it does exist.  That means that Senate Agriculture Committee Chair, Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and House Agriculture Committee Chairman, Representative Frank Lucas of Oklahoma as well as ranking member of the House committee, Representative Colin Peterson of Minnesota, put together some kind of plan all by themselves.  That has raised the ire of many farm groups as well as many in Congress.  Before the Super Committee gave up on their mission, Wisconsin Third District Congressman Ron Kind, and many of his Congressional colleagues, wrote a letter to the Committee asking them not to consider what the ag committee leaders came up with since it was not a reflection of the feelings and positions of the rest of the Congress.

    That is all past history.  The bigger question now is how and when do we move ahead with a 2012 farm bill. While those Congressional committee chairs and ranking members battle over provisions in a new bill, they first must try to figure out when to get started on the project.  So far it appears they can’t even do that.  Senator Stabenow says we should start in January.  Senator Roberts says hearings on the bill should fall under regular Senate order.  In the House, Congressman Lucas says he likes the compromise bill he and the other leaders came up with and he might even support extending the current farm bill.  That position might come from the fact that direct payments to farmers, which are very lucrative for southern farmers, would most likely be on the chopping block in any new farm bill language.  Congressman Peterson says he wants the bill that calls for those $23 billion in farm program cuts to be part of the plan to extend payroll tax cuts and for re-imbursement for doctors who treat Medicare patients.  His thought is that the money saved in farm program payments would pay for those tax cuts.  He also, of course, introduced the Dairy Security Act in the bill that went to the Super Committee, and if it is opened up for debate in the new farm bill discussions, it will most certainly face many changes.  That plan does have the support of the Wisconsin and American Farm Bureau Federations but other groups like the Dairy Business Association and the Wisconsin Cheesemaker’s Association oppose the plan because of the supply management clause, even if it is voluntary.  Those groups also question the pricing structure of that plan and what would happen to dairy farmer milk checks over the life of such a plan.

     Overriding the whole upcoming farm bill debate might be the general political climate in Washington.

In the past few weeks we’ve had a chance to visit with some Washington insiders who are familiar with politics in D.C.  Mary Kay Thatcher, Senior Director, Congressional Relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation told us she has never seen such a bad political atmosphere in Washington on both sides of the aisle.  She told us she would “be surprised if Congress gets much done before the 2012 elections.”

     With an even darker description of the situation in Washington was Tom DeFrank, a journalist who has been covering Washington and Presidential politics since the final year of the Lyndon Johnson administration.  He told us at the recent Dairy Business Association’s 12th annual business conference in Madison, “I think I’ve never seen Washington more polarized, more toxic, more poisonous and more partisan.  The system is broken, it’s shut down.  Republicans loathe  (President Barack) Obama, Democrats loathe the Republicans and there is no one willing to step forward and say we’ve gotta stop this for the common good.”  He too feels nothing is going to happen legislatively before the next elections and that includes a new farm bill.