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INSIDE WASHINGTON: Conaway still hoping for on-time farm bill

Bulk of farm bill work looks to pick up in January through February on House side.

House Agriculture Committee chairman Mike Conaway (R., Texas) said he remains committed to getting the new farm bill passed on time, but the heavy lifting is unlikely to start until at least January 2018.

Although House work on health care, budget and tax reform has moved the timeline back slightly, he still anticipates that the House will walk its farm bill path through the early spring.

Conaway said the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has sped up its analysis of the farm bill provisions the committee is considering. He noted that CBO was “swamped” with health care provisions and now tax reform proposals.

Conaway said unlike other issues on the House floor with widespread Republican support, he doesn’t have the “luxury” of guaranteeing 218 Republican votes, so it will require a more sensible approach to farm policy with bipartisan support to achieve approval. He said he and committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) have been working “shoulder to shoulder,” and the plan continues to be to have a bipartisan bill.

He said he expects House members to begin introducing individual, stand-alone proposals related to the farm bill in the coming weeks and months.

Some of the priorities for a bill are getting cotton producers back into Title 1 programs. Making the Average Crop Revenue (ARC) program more equitable across county lines is another issue looking for a solution. The foot and mouth disease vaccine bank is also high priority, although there are challenges with funding since this wasn’t included in the last farm bill’s budget line.

Conaway did not want to say he would recommend food stamp cuts but was insistent on the fact that his farm bill proposal would offer a “laser focus” on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funding. He said the focus remains on getting the policy right and trying to get people off the program and on their own two feet.

Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) have expressed a similar desire as Conaway to get a new farm bill across the finish line without the drama that was seen during passage of the last farm bill, which had to be extended more than a year.

Conaway said the last time a farm bill was done on time was 2002, with another Texan -- Larry Combest -- at the helm. However, there also was a $50 billion surplus in the federal budget that year. “I’m not going to have those resources at my disposal,” Conaway said.

“The decisions we will have to make will be hard,” Conaway noted, but the levels will be known by August. “There’s no reason to put those off,” he said of the hard decisions.

After hundreds of hours of listening sessions on the farm bill, “not one of them asked for less money” and the only one that mentioned an offset wasn’t seen as likely, Conaway said of a suggestion in Illinois to take away funding for organic farming for conventional agriculture.

Carl Zulauf, Ohio State University agricultural economist and farm policy veteran, said he does not expect wholesale shifts in policy this year, mostly because the last bill had a “difficult birthing process,” and there is widespread desire to avoid that this time around.

The money issue will be the top barrier as the debate gets underway. The dairy side has no baseline and likely will want at least $1 billion over 10 years. Cotton faces similar budget constraints as it was removed from the Title 1 programs during the last bill.

There is a possible alternative pathway for how to emerge from appropriations bills to cushion the dairy and cotton baselines. However, that backfired earlier this year when the cotton side was unwilling to let dairy have some of the money, and Stabenow wouldn’t agree.

Another idea Zulauf is beginning to float is to require acres to be updated based on actual plantings rather than just base acres. This could provide $2-4 billion in savings over the 10-year projections.

Another possible way to tweak funds is to increase the amount of insurance premiums farmers are required to pay. However, crop insurance has seen lower expenditures in recent years, adding to the argument that this side has done its part.

“Our costs have come down,” Zulauf said of crop insurance, explaining that, for example, it takes less to insure $4/bu. corn than $8 corn.

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