Congress breaks for Thanksgiving with no farm bill deal
By Jerry Hagstrom
WASHINGTON — Congress left Washington on Friday for Thanksgiving without reaching agreement on a new farm bill, leaving in question whether the bill will be finished before the end of the calendar year.
The four principal negotiators — House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who is chairing the conference, House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Senate Agriculture ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., met three times on Wednesday and Thursday, and there were signs of an agreement, but they finally gave up for the week.
Stabenow, who hosted the last meeting, told reporters, “I’m disappointed we don’t have an agreement yet” and that she would continue “to fight for priorities that the Senate feels are important.”
She said no decision has been made as to when meetings at the member level will resume, but that the staff would keep working, over the weekend and this week, even though Thanksgiving is approaching.
“We will keep doing the best we can,” Stabenow said. “I don’t give up.”
The House will return the first week of December, but the Senate is not expected back until Dec. 9. The House is scheduled to go out of session on Dec. 13 but the Senate will stay in session until Dec. 20.
Lucas had said it was necessary to reach agreement before Thanksgiving if the House is to vote on a conference report before Dec. 13 and the Senate is to vote on it before Dec. 20 so President Barack Obama can sign it before the end of the year.
Stabenow said the four principals had been close to a comprehensive agreement on “a number of occasions,” but the negotiations broke down. Many chapters of the bill are “very close,” Stabenow said, but it has to be “a global agreement.”
Food stamps, commodity policy
Stabenow, who had said repeatedly that she wanted an agreement last week, said she doesn’t know what it means for finishing the bill this year.
The chairmen and ranking members have avoided discussing the differences publicly but it is known there are still disagreements between the House and the Senate over the size of the cut to the food stamp program and over commodity policy. The House bill cuts food stamps by $39 billion over 10 years while the Senate bill cuts it by only $4 billion.
The Senate bill focuses on a “shallow loss” program that corn and soybean growers favor while the House bill emphasizes a program based on target prices.
In addition, the Senate wants payments made on farmers’ historic base acreage while the House wants payments made on current planted acres.
On Friday, the American Soybean Association, the National Corn Growers Association and the U.S. Canola Association proposed a compromise on the issue of making farm payments on planted versus base acres.
In a letter to congressional leaders, the three groups proposed using the average of planted acres during the five years previous to the current year as the payment base for both the revenue and the price programs.
“The average would move forward, adding and dropping a year every year, in order to remain as current as possible without including the current year, which would serve as a deterrent to building base,” the groups wrote. “Consideration should be given to how effective revenue protection can be provided at both the farm and county levels under this approach.
“Lower prices for corn and other commodities and the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to lower the volumetric requirements under the Renewable Fuel Standard appeared to be affecting the debate over the farm bill.
The lower cash prices for corn, Lucas said, “might make people more realistic,” about what kind of farm program is needed, adding that until prices dropped, the commodity groups had been divided into two camps.
Peterson did tell reporters that:
- The discussions are “complicated.”
- They have discussed nutrition.
- He has told “the Canadians” that the bill will not change country-of-origin labeling for red meat.
- “There’s a lot of support for dairy” in the talks.
- The commodity title and the nutrition title are the biggest issues.