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NMPF chief still has hope for farm bill passage

Oct. 14, 2013 | 0 comments

MADISON

The new leader of the National Milk Producers Federation calls what's happening in Washington, DC, a "pathetic mess."

Jim Mulhern, a Wisconsin native and University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, said the government shutdown is the "latest insult to the public policy process. DC is not functioning.

"There is gridlock on every issue – not just the farm bill. A small group of House members shuts the process down." Still he's cautiously optimistic that a farm bill could get done this year.

The Senate has passed, in bipartisan fashion, a farm and food bill twice as has the House Agriculture committee, he noted, during an interview with Wisconsin State Farmer at World Dairy Expo. "If left to them we'd have a farm bill now."

With the government shutdown soon to be followed by a donnybrook over the debt ceiling, Mulhern says that the farm bill is down to the list of things to get done in Congress.

But he thinks leadership won't want to extend a farm bill that would continue to spend money on programs where most members think there should be cuts.

He was encouraged by the House decision at the end of September to put its separate food and farm bills together for the purposes of negotiating a way forward on the farm bill in a conference committee.

The nine-month extension of the 2008 farm bill expired on Sept. 30 after the House passed "farm-only" and "food-only" bills that were at odds with the Senate's version.

"This was the first time in history that a farm bill failed on the floor of the House. It does give you pause."

The Senate has appointed the 12 conferees (seven Democrats and five Republicans) to work with their House colleagues on a way forward with the two disparate bills crafted in their respective houses of Congress.

A conference committee had not moved forward since House Speaker John Boehner hasn't appointed conferees from his chamber.

Differences in bills

There is a vast difference to overcome in the conference committee. The Senate's measure called for $4 billion in cuts to the food stamp program while the House bill called for $40 billion in cuts over 10 years.

"Food stamp cuts are the number-one issue and difference between the two bills."

There's also the question of where dairy policy will go in the future.

The Senate Bill and the House Agriculture's version included the Dairy Security Act (DSA) that had provisions for supply management at times when farmers' margins are unprofitable.

Some outspoken critics – including the Wisconsin-based Dairy Business Association – don't want to see a farm bill with the supply management provisions included.

What is called the "market stabilization" part of the farm bill was removed on the House floor during debate on the measure.

Mulhern feels confident that the DSA provisions will prevail.

"Since 1998 milk production has increased two percent a year. It's a very productive industry. But the whole point of the market stabilization program is to take out the wild swings and create a more stable economy for dairy farmers," he said.

"It won't hurt the ability to expand at all. If dairy plants want more milk there's a time-tested method to get it – pay more for the milk."

The market stabilization portion of the program, he noted, only kicks in when the price to farmers is "below survival levels" and "it only kicks in on a temporary basis. It's a temporary reduction."

Quicker turnaround

In 2009, when milk prices paid to farmers were at disastrously low levels, Mulhern said that the market price would have turned around much more quickly if farmers had had the market stabilization program.

"I would say to processors who are worried about having enough milk to fill their plants that they have nothing to worry about."

The DSA provisions, he said, provide a "very effective safety net" and the programs – if they pass – will serve as "cheap insurance" to protect the margins of dairy farmers.

But such protection without some kind of signal to farmers that they should reduce production at certain times would end up being a tremendous cost to taxpayers. "A margin-only program is a Trojan Horse," he said. "It's a recipe for disaster."

In the first version of the DSA, based on his organization's Foundation for the Future plan, involvement in the supply management portion of the program was mandatory. Then, as Congress made concessions and compromises, it became voluntary.

If dairy farmers don't have "skin in the game" he said, it will be difficult to justify taxpayer funding. "It's a philosophical dichotomy."

Since the Senate bill included the DSA provisions, including market stabilization, Mulhern said it won't be possible for that part of the bill to be removed. Whatever the conferees come up with is unamendable. It will either pass or fail in the two houses of Congress.

Mulhern worked at National Milk Producers Federation from 1985-91 in government affairs and left to become chief of staff for Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl.

Later he worked in food and agricultural policy in Washington, most recently at his own communications firm for ag clients.

"This is a great opportunity to come back and lead the organization," he said. "I'm very, very happy."

Mulhern came in last year as part of a succession plan when retiring president Jerry Kozak announced he would step down. The board recently named Mulhern to the post of president and CEO officially.

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