Senate committee gets ’12 Farm Bill ball rolling
Washington — In a move interpreted by some as a sign an updated federal Farm Bill may be on the immediate horizon, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry late last month unveiled a bill authors say will reduce the federal deficit by $23 billion over 10 years.
Conservation program cuts would be $6.4 billion over that time period, according to conservation groups.
The bill passed the committee April 26 on a 16-5 vote.
The debate now begins whether Congress can pass the bill yet this summer; most believe if matters such as the massive Farm Bill aren’t settled by the end of August, the fall elections will put them on hold.
“It is entirely doable that it will happen (new Farm Bill approved) this summer,” according to Brad Redlin, director of agricultural programs for the Izaak Walton League of America. He added that if it doesn’t happen, Congress likely will need to pass an extension to keep programs within the current bill funded.
Redlin said last year’s failed “super committee,” tasked with reducing the federal budget deficit, helped lay the groundwork for the Farm Bill forwarded by the Senate ag committee.
“By and large, (the ag committee bill) tracks pretty darn close (to the super committee recommendation),” he said. “There’s some comfort in not being surprised.”
Little in the latest version of the bill was left off the chopping block. The CRP program, the most prominent of conservation programs (in Title II of the Farm Bill), is recommended to be capped at 25 million acres nationwide. The current cap is 32 million acres, and enrollment stands at about 30 million. A recent general CRP signup likely will increase total acreage, but contract expirations this September will reduce the total by about 6.5 million acres.
Redlin said the reduction, if approved, would take a “step-down” approach; the new cap wouldn’t be required immediately.
The Conservation Stewardship Program, too, would see a reduction in acreage under the Senate committee bill.
And, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Grasslands Reserve Program, and the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program would be combined into a single easement program with two branches – one combining FRPP and GRP, the agricultural lands easement program and the other, a wetlands easement program similar to WRP.
It’s also noteworthy, according to the coalition, that the combined easement program would be “denominated in dollars rather than acres per year” – baseline funding long sought by some conservation groups.
According to the NSAC, the program would be provided with $3.2 billion over the next 10 years, and funding is permanent rather than temporary.
“This is a significant improvement, though the flip side is that the overall funding levels for all three underlying programs will be significantly less than what it has been per year,” according to the NSAC news release.
Also combined in the legislation are the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) – into what would be a single program with cuts totalling about $1.6 billion, or about 8.7 percent, according to the SAC.
Several regional conservation partnership programs, too – the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is one – would be combined into a single partnership program.
Of note for Wisconsin: The Voluntary Access Program – that program that funded additions to the state’s Walk-In Access program – is again authorized in this Farm Bill version.
While the 2008 bill provided $50 million for what eventually became a three-year period, the Senate bill would provide $40 million (for all states) during the Farm Bill’s five-year run.
Most conservation groups, too, were enthused by the bill’s inclusion of a “Sodsaver” component – a provision to protect native prairie, according to the NSAC.
According to an NSAC post: “While the Sodsaver provision in the Senate bill does not, as we had proposed, deny all crop insurance subsidies on newly broken land, it does provide for a 50-percent reduction in the subsidy.”
Redlin said the national average for subsidized crop insurance is about 60 percent of the premium. He called it a “common sense” provision.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the cost of subsidized crop insurance likely will exceed $80 billion over the next 10 years, more than the cost of conservation programs combined.
An amendment to the bill from South Dakota Sen. John Thune prohibits commodity program payments from being earned on newly broken land.
By and large, most groups supported, to some degree, the committee bill. A number of those groups recently signed onto a letter of support sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
According to the letter, “The stakeholders we represent need to know details of the programs which will be in effect in 2013 as soon as possible.
“This is one piece of legislation upon which all Americans depend, urban as well as rural. With limited time remaining before expiration of current program authorities, time is of the essence.”
Signators of the letter ranged from the American Farm Bureau, the American Beekeeping Association, and the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, to Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, the IWLA, Trout Unlimited, and several others.
DU last month offered high marks for the Senate legislation, while remaining “concerned about maintaining strong protections for critical wetlands via the Swampbuster program, and advancing protections for native grasslands on continentally important landscapes such as the Prairie Pothole Region in the Dakotas.”
While dollar amounts likely will shift in the upcoming Farm Bill, the amounts in each of the bill’s “titles” likely won’t change dramatically.
According to the Congressional Research Service, commodities spending was slated to cost about $8.3 billion per year during the life of the 2008 bill, or about 15 percent of the total. Conservation was to cost about $4.8 billion per year (9 percent) and crop insurance $4.4 billion (about 8 percent). The nutrition title (food stamps) consumed about two-thirds of Farm Bill funding, or about $37.8 billion each year, according to the CRS.
The 10-year cost of the 2008 bill was estimated to be about $600 billion. With an increase primarily in the nutrition title of a 2012 bill, the House Agriculture Committee projects a 2012 bill with a $900 billion outlay (or more) during the next 10 years.