Washington — Could the four lead farm bill negotiators have come up with a plan that will please not only other conference committee members, but also the full House and Senate? While the details of negotiations have been kept mostly under wraps, it appears the framework of a bill could be offered soon, if not the entire structure.
“After two and a half years of this roller-coaster ride … I think we’re close to getting a final deal done,” Eric Lindstrom, Ducks Unlimited’s government affairs representative, said earlier this week.
“Some folks think it could get done before the end of the calendar year, which seems optimistic,” Lindstrom said, adding that mid-January seems more likely. It’s possible Congress could extend the current bill for 30 days to buy time before a final farm bill is passed.
The bill, which includes commodity payments to farmers, as well as conservation programs, has languished for months because of disagreement regarding the nutrition title of the bill, specifically the food stamp program, which consumes more than three-fourths of the bill’s $100 billion-per-year spending.
Recently, it appears, House negotiators seemed to have moved from their position of cutting about $40 billion over 10 years to the $4 billion offered by Senate democrats.
Collin Peterson, ranking House Ag Committee Democrat, told the Fargo Forum earlier this week what was being discussed in food stamp cuts was “substantially closer” to what the Senate had proposed, and that some House members “are not going to be happy with the food stamp cuts.”
Lindstrom said he believed it would take a bi-partisan effort to get the bill passed in both the House and Senate. And, he added, “I think it’s a real desire of all the negotiators to get it passed and get it on the president’s desk.”
House and Senate negotiators – including, besides Peterson, Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla. – have been pretty tight-lipped about the conservation elements of the bill, though past comments make apparent where they stand regarding things like Sodsaver and re-coupling crop insurance payments with conservation practice compliance. Lucas has said in the past that re-coupling adds an unnecessary level of bureaucracy.
Bill Wenzel, Izaak Walton League of America agriculture program director, said Tuesday he believed re-coupling could be part of the final product from the conference committee.
Wenzel also said efforts had been made by committee members to weaken “Swampbuster,” which protects wetlands.
“We’re cautiously optimistic on conservation compliance and the weakening of Swampbuster,” he said. “We’re less confident about national Sodsaver.”
Instead, it’s possible Sodsaver might be offered in a regional approach.
Other conservation programs might have a new look, according to Lindstrom. It was the desire of some during negotiations to “simplify” and “streamline” the conservation programs, in some cases combining similar programs, without big changes, he said.
It’s almost a forgone conclusion, though, that the Conservation Reserve Program, the cornerstone of federal conservation, will continue to lose ground. The enrollment cap nationally stands at 32 million acres, and about 30 million are in the program. It’s expected a five-year farm bill would incrementally reduce acreage in the program to around 25 million or 26 million acres, Lindstrom said.
Currently, a plan from the four negotiators is before members of the Congressional Budget Office, where it’s being scored to determine its financial implications.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition earlier this week predicted it would be in January that a bill could be passed in Congress.
“While noises are still being made by some members of Congresss about finalizing the farm bill next week, in all likelihood the final details will not be settled until early January, at which point the full conference committee would actually meet,” according to a story on the NSAC’s website.
It’s probable that when the bill goes before the full conference committee, members of that group will attempt to, in one form or another, amend it.
Wenzel said, however, it’s important a bill be brought forward and passed, to provide a level of certainty for both ag producers and conservationists.