Monday, April 16, 2012

Farm Bill and Agriculture Program Activity Heats Up This Week

The Senate Agriculture Committee is now very close (literally days away) from marking up a new Farm Bill, and the Committee's initial bill language should be released sometime this week, with markup being concluded during the current work session (that is, before the Senate's next scheduled recess the week of April 30).  If the bill garners a strong vote of support coming out of Committee, it should then go on to be considered by the full Senate sometime this Spring or early Summer. The Conservation Title should find strong bipartisan support in the Senate Agriculture Committee.  Finding consensus on and bipartisan support for Farm Bill Title 1 language will be more problematic, with crop insurance and direct payments being major sticking points due in large part to varying regional concerns among agricultural interests.

Positions on Farm Bill issues will be decidedly more partisan in the House than in the Senate.  House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (D-OK) has indicated that his Committee will also attempt to actively move on a Farm Bill relatively soon.  The House Committee may pick up on the language coming out of its Senate counterpart as a starting point (perhaps modifying language based on feedback received at recent House Committee Farm Bill field hearings).  Complicating things on the House side are the “shadow reconciliation” House Budget Resolution instructions, which direct six House committees – including Agriculture - to collectively (by April 27) come up with $261 billion in spending cuts over ten years from mandatory Federal programs.  The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to meet this Wednesday, and it’s expected that by next Friday's deadline the committee will come up with an outline of Farm Bill cuts that total the $33.2 billion in savings over ten years (including $8.2 billion in cuts during Fiscal Year 2013) in the Paul Ryan Budget Resolution. That $33.2 billion in cuts could come from a range of Farm Bill programs and Federal agriculture accounts.  The Ryan budget plan proposed that $30 billion of the cuts could come from direct farm payments and Federal crop insurance subsidies; however, those cuts would be very unpopular among House Members from farm-heavy states. So the cuts may simply (for political expediencies' sake) be tagged primarily (or even exclusively) from nutrition programs, which some House GOP members are targeting for major cuts in any case. One Republican proposal includes converting the food stamp (or SNAP) program into a state block grant program in order to limit annual program spending.

What shallow reconciliation will mean for chances to build bipartisan support for a Farm Bill in the House is uncertain, although the clear message heard from some House Democratic Agriculture Committee members recently is that the Ryan budget proposal will make getting a Farm Bill through the House this year very difficult.

Congressional discussions on Capitol Hill over  the next Fiscal Year's funding levels for Farm Bill programs will also begin soon.  The Senate Appropriations Committee’s Agriculture Subcommittee may start working on its Fiscal Year 2013 appropriation language within the next week or two, with its House counterpart also moving quickly, but likely after the Senate.

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