With super committee failure, farm bill goes back to normal congressional process
The top lobbyist for American Farm Bureau had expected that there would be new farm legislation passed through Congress before Christmas. Up until the so-called "super committee" failed to reach an agreement on budget cuts, Mary Kay Thatcher said she believed there was an 80 percent chance of a new farm bill being achieved in the budget-cutting special committee.
That's because the key players in farm policy at the Capitol had agreed to $23 billion in cuts to agriculture programs and were pretty much in accord. Even though the process was done virtually in secret, the total amount of the cuts is pretty well known, she said.
But now that the super committee has given up, the chairs of the House and Senate agriculture committees won't reveal what the outlines of the farm bill had been. "Now we're back to how we usually write farm bills, with hearings and committee meetings. We may have a farm bill by next October."
Thatcher, who spoke to members of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Sunday (Dec.4) at their annual meeting in Wisconsin Dells, said agriculture committees are "used to writing farm bills in times of deficit." But this year's deficit is a record and many in the non-farm media are calling farm subsidies "welfare to farmers" and seeking major changes. Headlines she cited included this one - "When corn is pork."
"There's not a worse year to be a farm bill lobbyist," she said. Some who oppose farm subsidies are telling lawmakers that "maybe we don't need any subsidies for agriculture at all."
"We are having to buck a log of negative press," Thatcher said. "There's not a very good understanding of what's going on." She has been telling Congressional representatives that farmers are willing to take their faire share of cuts in the upcoming process, but only a fair share.
Agriculture's "fair share" would be $6.7 billion, she said, but will likely be more like $19 billion - three times the fair amount - in an upcoming budget. And farm interests had agreed to give up $23 billion to get the super committee to its goal.
"There has been a lot of discussion about the process, the fact that it was secret and that it really involved only the two agriculture chairmen." Thatcher said there was "plenty of input" into the process, but it was "not the way any of us in agriculture would have wanted to produce legislation."
It "wasn't a pretty way to make legislation" but was a necessity, given the short time frame the committee had to make some massive cuts.
Though lawmakers won't release the final draft of their proposal, she believes cuts were considerable to commodity programs, crop insurance, conservation programs and rural development. But she reminded the farmers in her audience to keep in mind that of the $911 billion in "farm bill" spending over the last 10 years, 76 percent of it was for nutrition programs.
Farm Bill not
just for farmers
Thatcher said she has a 25-second elevator speech ready to counter whatever outrageous thing some urban dweller has said to her. "They think a farm bill is just for farmers."
In fact, the farm portion of the farm bill includes 7 percent for commodity programs, 7 percent for conservation programs, 9 percent for crop insurance subsidies and 1 percent for research and other items.
The number of Americans on food stamps has now reached 44 million - or 1 in 7 citizens, she said. In schools, 75 percent of kids get free lunch, based on income guidelines. Hungry Americans are a huge constituency as the next legislation on food and farming gets crafted.
Farmers she talks to often tell her that they would be happy if the last farm legislation, the 2008 farm bill, was reauthorized going forward. But that wouldn't be a very good solution, she said, because 37 programs from the 2008 bill have no budget baseline after 2012.
"Farm Bureau's perspective is that we are willing to make reductions in programs benefiting agriculture but we're not willing to take more than agriculture's fair share," she said.
Farm Bureau concerns
Farm Bureau had a lot of concerns with the way the commodity program shaped up in the super committee discussion. One program was designed to benefit mainly cotton growers and another was the favorite of peanut growers. She doesn't believe there should be different programs for different commodities.
"We believe farm policy should be there to cover disasters," she said. Programs should help farmers through deep losses infrequently, not shallow losses quite often.
Thatcher said she is concerned that no one in the legislative discussion seems to be concerned about the effect of the policies on trade. Direct payments, which are almost universally vilified in Congress, are designated as "green box" under the World Trade Organization (WTO), while other trade-distorting programs that Congress seems to favor, put American agriculture into "amber box" territory.
"I've never been part of a farm bill debate where nobody cared about the WTO," she said.
Sixty percent of what crop insurance costs is being paid for today by the federal government, and Thatcher says that if direct payments are done away with, the groups that oppose farm subsidies will move on to "bludgeon" farmers on the crop insurance subsidy.
That will be an even more enticing target, she said, when they realize that direct payments total about $4.9 billion while crop insurance subsidies exceed $7 billion.
Thatcher also believes that when a new farm bill is written it will have a much smaller number of conservation programs. Today there are 23 and she suspects that when the dust settles those will be consolidated into five or six. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which now sets aside 32 million acres of land, will likely be limited to 25 or 26 million acres, she said.
Lobbyists opposed to farm programs, like the Environmental Working Group, are already agitating for changes that would require farmers comply with conservation practices if they are to use crop insurance. "This is going to be a huge issue," she said. "There will be more issues like this on conservation compliance."
One of the things Thatcher and other farm lobbyists have to do in this process is to convince lawmakers that "all farmers aren't rich," which is what they believe when they read headlines about gross farm income and the high price of commodities.
"It's going to be an ugly farm bill regardless."