THERE has been plenty of speculation as to the path forward on the farm bill, but more pieces are falling into place to potentially set up final passage.
The writing of the bill got its jump-start in the supercommittee in 2011 as part of a broader solution to the nation's fiscal woes. The "savings" from a farm bill continued to be touted, but insiders don't think the farm bill will be lumped into some grand bargain this time around.
It has languished for the last two years, predominantly because of partisan issues. If there's any hope, it is that members of the House and Senate agriculture committees "tend to be pragmatic more than political," explained Steve Kopperud, executive vice president of Policy Directions.
At press time, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio) had not formally named the conferees, and reports were mixed as to whether he would do it ahead of any deal on the debt ceiling and government shutdown fiasco.
Feedstuffs Beltway sources confirmed that the Republican roster will include predominantly agricultural members. However, it will also include Rep. Steve Southerland (R., Fla.) as a representative for the GOP leadership.
During the first time the House brought its bill to the floor, Southerland's amendment attaching work requirements to receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for able-bodied adults was said to be the "poison pill" that derailed final passage in the House and infuriated House Democrats.
The Republican roster being circulated includes 13 members. House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) will be joined by his five subcommittee chairs: Reps. Michael Conaway (R., Texas), Rick Crawford (R., Ark.), Steve King (R., Iowa), Austin Scott (R., Ga.) and Glenn Thompson (R., Pa.).
Others on the list include Reps. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), Martha Roby (R., Ala.), Kristi Noem (R., S.D.), Rodney Davis (R., Ill.), Jeff Denham (R., Cal.) and Southerland.
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) has said all of the Democrats named will be agriculture committee members.
Peterson was reportedly disappointed in the selection of Southerland and said it will only make the negotiations more difficult.
The House passed a nutrition title with $40 billion in cuts over 10 years, whereas the Senate approved a bill with only $4 billion in cuts over the same time period.
Kopperud said although progress is being made on establishing the conference committee, it's unlikely that they're going to rush into a small room to iron out differences.
Furthermore, those differences have become greater rather than lesser in recent weeks. Although the nutrition title's hard-cut numbers of $4 billion versus $40 billion are the easiest for some conservatives less familiar with the farm bill to conceptualize, the commodity title has lost considerable traction in recent weeks with concerns over trade implications and the impact on planting decisions.
"The commodity title is a huge barrier, and much more than people thought a month ago," Kopperud said.
In September, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Foreign Trade Council sent a letter to the agriculture committee leaders in the House and Senate asking them to guard against a World Trade Organization challenge and the potential for retaliation.
Kopperud noted that farm bill conferences typically revert to more regional rather than partisan differences. Many midwestern commodity groups have criticized how the House farm bill — and somewhat the Senate version — tilts in favor of southern crops, with high target prices for crops, and could distort planting decisions and significantly affect returns if implemented (Figure).
A new analysis from the University of Missouri's Food & Agricultural Policy Research Institute found that the House bill provides more support than the Senate bill to rice, barley and peanuts, while the Senate bill provides more support than the House bill to corn and soybeans.
The institute calculated that under the Senate bill, a farmer with one base acre for each planted acre could expect the following average program benefits: $25 for corn, $12 for soybeans, $10 for wheat or barley, $27 for upland cotton, $40 for rice and $70 for peanuts. Under the House bill, the various program benefits would be $22 per acre for corn, $10 for soybeans, $12 for wheat, $27 for upland cotton, $49 for barley, $82 for rice and $199 for peanuts.
Absent from the list of rumored House conferees is Rep. Bob Gibbs (R., Ohio), a consistent proponent of the approach to decouple payments from current-year planting decisions in the farm bill's commodity title.
During farm bill debate, Gibbs proposed an amendment that would have set the target price for all crops at 55% based on an Olympic average and would change it to base acres rather than planted acres. Gibbs withdrew the amendment because he said chairman Lucas promised him that he would have the opportunity to enhance the final product during conference.
Gibbs' view is shared by other midwestern senators already named to the conference committee, most notably Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.).
The question remains, "How do you maintain at least some base of support for a broader bill if people feel like they're being shafted?" Kopperud said of the spats between southern and midwestern congressional members.
"The worst thing you can do is have a conference report that they attempt to finalize at the end of the day and a third of the conferees don't sign it," he said.