Amid the turmoil created by the government shutdown, progress was made toward a farm bill last week.
The House of Representatives voted Friday (Oct. 11) to appoint conferees to work out differences with members of the Senate's conference committee on a comprehensive five-year farm and food bill.
The Senate's conferees had been named some time ago.
House members approved the move to go into farm bill talks on a 223-189 vote and also approved a resolution urging conferees to support a Senate measure that would limit crop insurance subsidies to farmers with adjusted gross income of $750,000 or more.
House members who will serve on the conference committee were appointed Saturday (Oct. 12) and include 12 members of the House Agriculture Committee – but not Wisconsin's only representative on that panel Rep. Reid Ribble (R.)
House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) and ranking member Collin Peterson (D-MN) were appointed by their respective party leaders in the House to work on the conference committee.
Republicans also appointed two representatives from Alabama and Texas, along with Steve King (IA), Glenn Thompson (PA), Austin Scott (GA), and representatives from Arkansas, South Dakota and Illinois.
The GOP also named Steve Southerland (R-FL) to the panel. He's the author of the amendment, which authorized cuts of nearly $40 billion over 10 years to federal food assistance programs as well as work-to-eat provisions in those programs.
It was his provisions that cost the farm bill any support from Democrats in the House, and forced the splitting of the policy package into "farm-only" and "food-only" bills and strictly party-line votes.
It was the first time in history that a farm bill has failed on the floor of the House and was also the first time the two parts of the bill were split.
Many veteran lawmakers and aides believe it's important to have food and farm legislation joined in order to get the votes to pass any kind of commodity programs.
Several weeks ago the House agreed to put its food and farm bills back together so they could negotiate with Senators on how the farm bill could move forward.
To counter the hardliner on food stamp cuts, Democrats appointed food-stamp advocate Marsha Fudge (D-OH) to the conference committee along with members from North Carolina, California, Oregon, Texas, New York and Michigan.
Minnesota's Collin Peterson said he is hopeful the conferees can work out a deal that would break the three-year deadlock on a farm bill. He was chairman of the House Agriculture Committee when the 2008 farm bill was passed.
Peterson is also the author of the Dairy Security Act, which became the dairy title in the farm bill last year and this year. Senators have approved those dairy provisions in their version of the legislation.
The House version included an amendment that eliminated what some critics call "supply management" – the so-called dairy market stabilization program. It is designed to reduce the amount of milk marketed when margins to farmers are dangerously low, as farmers saw in 2009.
"Without the market stabilization program, farmers will continue to suffer prolonged periods of poor margins, while taxpayers will subsidize artificially-low milk prices," said Jim Mulhern, chief operating office of the National Milk Producers Federation.
When House conferees were named, Mulhern said he was happy this next crucial step had been taken toward the creation of a new farm bill.
"NMPF will be working in the coming days to remind both the Senate and House conferees of the importance of a balanced and cost-effective dairy program.
The Senate's bipartisan Dairy Security Act is the only program designed to both help farmers when they need it most, while also limiting taxpayers' liability through its market stabilization mechanism."
Mulhern told Wisconsin State Farmer during a World Dairy Expo interview, and reiterated this week in a statement, that the Dairy Security Act "protects farmers of all sizes, allows for growth, and keeps taxpayer costs in check.
"The alternative is an irresponsible budget-buster. We strongly encourage the agriculture conferees to support the dairy title language in the Senate farm bill, and to include its provisions in the final package."
Capitol observers said the large size of the farm bill conference committee could pose problems for leaders trying to hash out a deal. Last time there was a conference committee there were 14 House members. This time there are 22.
In addition to members of the Agriculture Committee, House conferees include members of the Foreign Affairs and Ways and Means committees.
An early winter snowstorm that pounded the Dakotas and killed tens of thousands of cattle that were still in their summer pastures may have helped lawmakers see that some kind of federal programs are needed to help agriculture when disasters strike.