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House Ag Committee tackles major farm bill differences

Ag Committee debated policy addressing dairy, sugar, conservation and nutrition funding with few changes made.

The House Agriculture Committee began debate on its most contentious divisions within farm policy this morning, and moved forward with very few changes after tackling the first, and more dominant titles of the bill.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) chairman's mark - the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management (FARRM) Act of 2013 (view a summary of the bill) - includes more ambitious savings with a total of $38 billion compared to the Senate's $23 billion, with $20 billion coming from food assistance and $18 billion from the other titles.

Starting at 10 am until recessing at 3 p.m, the committee tackled policy addressing mostly dairy, sugar, conservation and nutrition. It completed work on the first four titles: Commodity, Conservation, Trade and Nutrition, with most work done on the Credit title. The committee will resume debate at 6:30 p.m. and can be viewed at www.cspan3.org/.

The committee debated for nearly an hour on the merits of whether food assistance should be seen as a way to make up deficit reduction, as well as the role of the federal government plays in meeting the needs of those who need assistance. Members from both sides of the aisle quoted the Bible in trying to find support for whether it is the individual or government's role to feed the poor.

The ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans took center stage in the debate as Democrats led by Rep. James McGovern (D., Mass.). He said the cuts were not about reform, and without hearings held on the program, is going to hurt people and instead of saving money, going to "make poor people more vulnerable." The change in qualifications could eliminate benefits to 2.5 million.

Ranking member Rep. Collin Peterson, (D., Minn.) staunchly defended the base text approach to eliminating categorical qualifications for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Rep. Reid Ribble, (R., Wisc.), said the real numbers and facts of the debate come down to whether money is the solution to address poverty. Poverty levels have been up by 16.1% since 2008, whereas SNAP funding is up 119%. The suggested $20 billion in cuts is 2% of overall SNAP funding per year.

Attempts by legislators to roll back the $20 billion in SNAP cuts did not prevail, with the amendment proposed by McGovern failing on a vote of 17-27. An amendment from Rep. Kurt Schrader (D., Ore.) to offer a compromise on the nutrition cuts in line with the Senate's passed $4.1 billion in cuts also failed.

McGovern also introduced an amendment designed to prohibit the suggested cuts in the SNAP program until fraud rates in crop insurance are equal to or better than those in SNAP. Peterson challenged it would be difficult to determine the actual fraud levels. Earlier this year he'd claimed that crop insurance fraud was five times more than SNAP, but said the reality is that's unknown.

Rep. Marcia Fudge (D., Ohio) proposed Healthy Food Financing Initiative to help increase access of healthy foods in low income areas. Her amendment passed narrowly, 21-19.

Dairy program

One of the other major debates in the markup occurred in the commodity title's Dairy Security Act (DSA), authored by Peterson. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) and Rep. David Scott (D., Ga.) introduced an amendment similar to last year which would remove the supply management mechanism in DSA.

The bill failed on a vote of 20-26, but not without vetting the topic as to the benefits and pitfalls of supply management on producers, processors and consumers.

In calling for support of the amendment, Goodlatte said the supply management component was "soundly rejected by House and Senate leadership" and said the supply control hurts producers as well as dairy food manufacturers by stifling growth.

Goodlatte noted that 20% of domestic milk production is purchased by the federal government and higher milk prices also could increase the cost of food assistance.

Lucas said that while most commodity groups have experienced good economic conditions in the last decade setting weather aside, "dairy has not" and instead been on a rollercoaster ride that has more downs than up.

Rep. Jim Costa, (D., Calif.) shared his family has produced milk for the past three generations, said the age old practice of producing more milk when prices are high and when prices are low no longer works. DSA helps correct that.

Peterson added that an extra 2% oversupply of milk collapses the system. And that overproduction stems back from 20 years ago when corn was subsidized and offered corn too cheap and the livestock industry expanded to take advantage of cheap feed.

House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) remains opposed to Peterson's supply management approach, and many said this provision prevented the House from tackling the farm bill in 2012. Goodlatte likely will again introduce his amendment on the full House floor.

En bloc amendments

A total of 100 amendments were expected to be discussed during the farm bill markup on the House side. Lucas started off the day with an en bloc amendment including 28 amendments that had broad support.

Included in that package were several items calling for additional studies and clarifications to the original text.

A bill from Rep. Bob Gibbs (R., Ohio) prohibits USDA from releasing any personal private information for participants in the commodity and conservation programs.

Gibbs also introduced an amendment requiring USDA to submit an annual report on the shallow-loss and target price programs in the House bill on planting, production, price and exports.

Another amendment proposed by Ribble modifies the Specialty Crop Block Grant program to allow federal funds to be used for equipment or capital-related research costs, provided that they state contribution is at least 50% for costs incurred in the year of purchase and 100% for costs incurred in any subsequent years.

A bill introduced by Scott called for the Secretary of Agriculture on the economic and public health effects that would result from the proposed order pertaining to the pesticide sulfuryl fluoride.

View the entire en bloc amendments.

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