Work is advancing on a new farm bill at a pace that has Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., optimistic enough to predict Congress could wrap up its work by the end of November.
“We’ve come a long way through conference committee negotiations,” Noem said.
Noem is on the 39-member conference committee that is hashing out differences between bills passed by the House and Senate. There has been just one formal meeting of the conference committee on Oct. 30, but Noem said agreements on various sections of the bill are being worked out among staff members and members of Congress.
“We’ve been working informally to come to agreement on the different titles,” Noem said.
“We’ve spent the last 24 to 36 hours really negotiating on the Forestry Title.”
A trip by U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell to the Black Hills Nov. 7 is helping to keep in provisions that would make it easier to battle the ongoing outbreak of mountain pine beetles, Noem said.
“It really helped to bring the Forest Service chief to South Dakota,” Noem said.
“He said we really need to move away from dealing with hundreds of acres at a time to dealing with thousands of acres at a time. To have him saying that publicly goes a long way to convincing the Senate that that’s language we need to keep.”
The most high-profile political fight has been over food stamps, a point where Noem left plenty of room for compromise.
“To say we will not find a compromise means we won’t have a farm bill, and that’s just not an option for me,” she said.
She declined to offer a dollar amount of cuts that should be made and instead said the program should be reformed to prevent fraud and abuse.
“The reforms have got to be centered around reforms, not around dollars. We need a program that gets people help when they really need it and to protect taxpayers. I would support that,” Noem said. “We have so many loopholes. People should have to prove their eligibility. I don’t think we should give states bonuses for signing up more people for food stamps. I don’t think we should be spending millions of dollars advertising the program on radio and TV. Those dollars would be much more beneficial if they helped families in need.”
The House version of the farm bill would cut $40 billion from food stamps over 10 years, while the Senate version would cut $4 billion. Noem said only that the final cuts will be somewhere between those two figures.
Both Noem and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., agreed that the farm bill should promote conservation of native grasslands and wetlands. The specifics of how that would work are being negotiated.
Both Noem and Thune held conference calls with reporters on Thursday.
Thune has worked to include a provision that “requires people to comply with land conservation practices or get a reduction in crop insurance benefits.”
In addition, he authored a sodsaver provision.
“It says if you break up new ground, you will not be eligible for crop insurance payments until you are able to establish yields on that ground — four to five years down road,” Thune said.
“If there is any incentive for a farmer to crop land that hasn’t been cropped before, to break up virgin ground, this will be a real disincentive to do that.”
Thune acknowledged that high corn prices, driven largely by demand from ethanol, have led farmers to plant crops on land formerly set aside under the Conservation Reserve Program.
“There’s no question when you have over 1.5 million acres of CRP and we’re now down to under 900,000, that’s going to impact pheasant production and wildlife habitat in our state,” Thune said. “There’s no question we’ve seen a decreased number of acres in the CRP program.”
He noted that the number of South Dakota acres participating in the federal Wetlands Reserve Program has gone up.
Noem agreed on the need to promote conservation but stopped short of embracing the specifics of the Thune provisions included in the Senate bill.
“We need to recognize our native ground as different and special, that we should not incentivize breaking that up through our crop insurance program,” Noem said.
Tying conservation to crop insurance “has some traction” with conference committee members, Noem said, but they want to be sure the programs would work as intended.
Thune said he is hopeful about completing a new farm bill by year’s end, but he does not share Noem’s optimism.
“There’s a lot of skepticism around here that it can happen,” Thune said.
Both Thune and Noem said their offices have taken many calls from South Dakotans upset by provisions of federal health care reform, formally the Affordable Care Act, but known more widely as Obamacare.
“Many who have shopped for insurance on the (online) marketplace have been shocked by the prices,” Noem said. “It’s just not affordable.”
She said reports of annual premium increases of $3,000 to $4,000 are typical for families, and one family reported an annual premium increase of $12,000.
Noem said she favors some alternative policies crafted by congressional Republicans.
“We should allow people to shop across state lines for insurance policies. We should cover people through risk pools. Many states are doing very well in getting coverage to people who haven’t had it before,” she said. “This is really the way to approach health care reform, rather than a system where government gets to make all the decisions.”
The criticism came on the day President Obama apologized to the nation for a troubled roll-out of the online marketplace where Americans are supposed to be able to shop and compare insurance plans. Obama offered to take administrative action to allow Americans to keep existing insurance policies for another year even if they don’t meet Obamacare’s minimum requirements for coverage.
Thune repeated his call for the whole program to be scrapped.
“This policy is not going to work. It is built upon a faulty foundation and it’s destined to crumble,” Thune said. “I hope we can go in a different direction, and this will be a wake-up call.”