IN today's political environment, there isn't always an opportunity for open debate, but that won't be the case May 14 in the Senate Agriculture Committee and May 15 in the House Agriculture Committee, when leaders will allow open amendments to the farm bill.
Senate committee chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) and House committee chair Rep. Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) will be directing some of the most contentious battles in agriculture.
Crop insurance, dairy assistance, sugar program reform, the egg bill, food stamp assistance — those and many more will share the spotlight as to where farm policy goes next.
For starters, both chairman's marks contain last year's Dairy Security Act, which is backed by the National Milk Producers Federation and authored by Rep. Collin Peterson (D., Minn.). The debate will be restarted over whether supply management is needed or desired; processors and free market supporters oppose the idea of the government intervening in milk supplies.
There was some chatter that Stabenow's mark would include the so-called "egg bill" she co-sponsored that codifies a hen housing agreement between The Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers, but in the end, it wasn't in her mark.
Chad Gregory, president of the United Egg Producers, which represents nearly 90% of U.S. egg producers, expressed "utter disappointment" in fellow livestock and farm groups for being "paranoid" that the bill's language would affect them.
"Without this legislation, egg farmers will go out of business, states will lose jobs, consumers will see disruption and price effects in their local grocery stores and grocers and restaurant companies will find interstate commerce in eggs grinding to a halt," he said.
Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said she still anticipates an amendment on the House and/or Senate floor.
Crop insurance is the sacred cow for farmers, but expect legislators to ask farmers to pick up more of the premium tab to help pay for everything from conservation to food assistance.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D., Ore.) and 12 co-sponsors introduced an alternative conservation title bill last week. It seeks to limit government cost sharing for crop insurance on crops grown on land that was converted from sod grass or some wetlands. Commodity groups are concerned about the implications of this approach.
Environmental and agricultural groups had joined forces in hopes of obtaining language to prevent conservation compliance from being attached to crop insurance payments. However, the compromise was not included in the marks and likely will come up for debate in the agriculture committee and on the Senate floor. Reports indicated that Lucas does not support the agreement.
Thatcher said as many as 100 amendments could be introduced on the House side, which could make for a repeat of the previous farm bill's 13-hour markup. The Senate powered through its markup in a record 4.5 hours last year. We'll watch for a repeat this year.
Once the farm bill is out of committee, there's hope for floor time yet this summer. In a memo to House Republicans May 3, House majority leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) said he expects a "heavy legislative workload in the summer months leading up to the August recess," and the farm bill will be included. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) also has said he wants to pass the farm bill.
Remember, though, saying and doing can be two different things in the Beltway.