WASHINGTON – House and Senate lawmakers responsible for writing a farm bill will gather publicly on Wednesday for the first time, a meeting expected to shed light on how quickly the conferees could strike a deal on the much-delayed legislation.
The 41 lawmakers are charged with merging farm bills passed this summer by the House and Senate into one piece of legislation, an arduous task highlighted by the $35 billion gap between the two sides on food stamp spending and the apparent reluctance of each side to budge from its position.
Top officials and staff from the Senate and House Agriculture committees already have met privately to work on a new five-year farm bill, which includes crop insurance, subsidies, conservation, public nutrition and food aid programs. The Wednesday conference, where lawmakers will make opening statements, could be the only gathering for the farm bill not held behind closed doors. By law, at least one meeting must be open to the public.
"People are going to be watching to see how the opening speeches go on Wednesday as to what kind of tone is set as to whether people are highlighting the differences or highlighting the places of commonality," said Pat Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, a think tank at the University of Missouri. "That may be some indicator of just how eager everybody is to get to an agreement."
The five-year, $500 billion farm bills being proposed by each chamber have a handful of differences on agriculture policy issues that need to be ironed out, but those who follow the process do not expect those to be a major hang-up that would impede passage of the legislation.
The provisions expected to be the most contentious focus on crop insurance. Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill mandates farmers who get crop insurance to meet certain environmental requirements. The Senate also would require farmers with adjusted gross income greater than $750,000 a year to pay more for federally subsidized insurance. Both bills would end direct payments, doled out regardless of need, and increase the number of crop insurance programs available to farmers.
Congress has struggled to craft a farm bill to replace the 2008 measure, which expired Sept. 30, 2012. Lawmakers extended the legislation earlier this year through the end of September in hopes the delay would provide them more time to reach a deal. While some farm programs have expired for a second time, the more pressing deadline comes on Jan. 1, when a 1949 farm law requires that subsidy prices begin to increase, starting with dairy payments.
"I think everybody realizes that the alarm goes off at the end of the year and something has to happen" before then, said Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., a member of the farm bill conference committee. "I think the vast majority of it can be agreed to pretty quickly. The nutrition may be the sticking point."
In June, the Democratic-controlled Senate approved a reduction in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, of $4.5 billion over a decade. The Republican-led House recently passed a reduction of $39 billion. Republicans have pushed for deeper cuts to restore the program's original eligibility limits and preserve the safety net for the truly needy, while Democrats have said the reductions go too far and argue that the changes would force millions of deserving Americans off of food stamps.
Lawmakers also have to agree on timing. While the Senate bill has proposed extending both farm policy and food stamps for five years, the House would do farm policy for the same time but only three years for nutrition. Agriculture groups fear that severing the two parts would lessen the urgency to pass a farm bill by siphoning off support from urban lawmakers.
Chad Hart, an associate professor of economics at Iowa State University, said the nutrition debate is likely going to force Congress to extend the farm bill for a second time in order to give lawmakers more time to negotiate. "I think the conferees might be able to reach a compromise, but I don't know if it can get a majority of votes in both houses," said Hart. "The farm bill is usually not this political."
Several factors are in play that could spur passage of the farm bill, but approval is far from certain.
President Barack Obama has tabbed farm legislation as one of his top priorities, and Senate Democrats have been adamant about not temporarily extending the farm bill again. The threat of the 1949 law going into effect also looms on the horizon. And the fact that the conference is happening at all is seen as promising, according to those who follow the farm bill.
Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, said he will be keeping a close watch on the farm bill conference meeting to look for signals from the lawmakers "so we know where to apply pressure and influence."
"Another extension is unacceptable," Hill added. "We need to get this done."