CONGRESS took another significant step in reaching the end goal of a farm bill after the House officially named its farm bill conferees Oct. 12.
The House named 17 Republican and 12 Democrat farm bill conferees (see sidebar), and the Oct. 11 approval of House legislation to conference with the Senate on agricultural and related issues legislation formally allows conferencing to begin.
Four leaders met last Wednesday evening and directed their staffs to begin working, although the earliest a full conference can meet is the week of Oct. 27.
House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) said although constant dialogue has laid the groundwork between House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders, a formal conference will allow the two chambers to "iron out big, challenging differences" that exist in writing a new farm bill.
"Ultimately, there are just issues that require a full conference, a full airing of the process, to be determined," he said.
In a radio interview, Lucas said he expects to hold a formal meeting sometime in the near future that will give all members an opportunity to outline their perspectives and make their opening comments.
"At that point, then you would expect us to recess (and) continue to work out the details amongst all the conferees," Lucas said. "There may be a series of public meetings then on issues where we cannot come to an agreement: maybe the final details on the nutrition title, perhaps the final details on what kind of a real commodity safety net we have."
Lucas said what some would consider "preconference" has allowed items that are similar or close to agreement, and he said they've "accomplished good amount of that."
"There are challenging issues yet to overcome, but we have a solid team of negotiators in place. I am confident we can reach consensus and send a five-year farm bill to the President," Lucas said.
The Senate Agriculture Committee leaders released statements welcoming the House's latest move and looking forward to crossing the finish line.
"Senators worked across the aisle to overwhelmingly pass bipartisan farm bills the last two years in a row," Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said. "If that same bipartisanship endures in the conference committee, we will cut tens of billions of dollars in unnecessary spending, make major reforms to improve crop insurance and strengthen other risk management tools, streamline and strengthen conservation and nutrition programs and create jobs by investing in rural America."
On Oct. 11, the House also approved by voice vote a non-binding resolution offered by Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) calling on House conferees to adopt an amendment in the Senate farm bill that proposes to reduce crop insurance support for producers whose income is more than $750,000 per year. The Senate approved an amendment with very similar provisions.
Lucas expressed reluctance regarding the resolution because of concerns that it could shrink the overall insurance pool and runs the risk of raising costs for everyone.
Another resolution was approved that would call on House negotiators to seek language that eliminates import limits on sugar, which supporters say would make it easier to manage sugar supplies and help ensure more reasonable prices.
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) said these provisions are "unprecedented," in part, because the two Republican motions will essentially ask the House to consider positions it has already rejected.
"Conferees are committed to working together and getting a farm bill done, but bringing divisive resolutions to a vote and appointing conferees outside the Agriculture Committee has made our jobs a lot harder," Peterson said.
Chuck Conner, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said the general consensus is that it is way past time to pass a farm bill and that if Congress gets anything done this year, it will be a farm bill.
Another promising signal came from President Barack Obama, who said during a televised statement after the Senate passed its solution for the government shutdown that the farm bill is an area where Congress can make progress this year.
Conner noted that the commodity title differences are "not overwhelming," and the nutrition funding chasm can be resolved if senior members and the Administration can sit down and establish a target for cuts of between $4 billion and $40 billion. He expects the number to be closer to $4 billion.
Agricultural groups continue to draw their lines in the sand on what they want to see in any final bill.
American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman said the two overarching concerns related to the Senate/House conference on the farm bill are ensuring that permanent law is not repealed and that a complete, unified bill continues instead of the House's approach to extend the nutrition title for only three years instead of five years like the farm-only farm bill.
The Farm Bureau has pulled its support from a coalition seeking to attach conservation compliance to crop insurance. In addition, the group voiced support for a controversial amendment pushed by Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa) regarding commerce laws across state lines that would prohibit states from exerting their initiatives — such as California's Prop 2 — on agricultural products that come from other states.
The National Farmers Union also outlined its priorities, which include maintaining permanent law, establishing fixed reference prices for commodity programs and enacting an inventory management tool as part of the dairy safety net.
The Senate and House have different positions on how to handle supply management in the dairy sector, which will set up a divided discussion in conference committee.
Peterson informed House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Cal.) that the House's approach to dairy policy would affect dairy farmers in her home state, so she removed Rep. David Scott (D., Ga.) from the conference committee, thus removing one "no" vote on dairy.
Farm bill conferees
THE House formally named its farm bill conferees Oct. 12. They include House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) and 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 Republican roster include Reps. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), Randy Neugebauer (R., Texas), Martha Roby (R., Ala.), Kristi Noem (R., S.D.), Rodney Davis (R., Ill.), Jeff Denham (R., Cal.) and Steve Southerland (R., Fla.).
Democrats include House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D., Minn.), Reps. Mike McIntyre (D., N.C.), Jim Costa (D., Cal.), Tim Walz (D., Minn.), Kurt Schrader (D., Ore.), Jim McGovern (D., Mass.), Suzan DelBene (D., Wash.), Gloria Negrete McLeod (D., Cal.) and Filemon Vela (D., Texas).
House Foreign Affairs Committee conferees include Reps. Ed Royce (R., Cal.), Tom Marino (R., Pa.) and Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.).
For the House Ways & Means Committee, conferees include Reps. Dave Camp (R., Mich.), Sam Johnson (R., Texas) and ranking member Sandy Levin (D., Mich.).
The Senate had already named its farm bill conferees. Democrats include Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), Sens. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), Max Baucus (D., Mont.), Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) and Michael Bennet (D., Colo.). Republicans include Sens. Thad Cochran (R., Miss.), Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.), John Boozman (R., Ark.) and John Hoeven (R., N.D.).