Where’s the Farm Bill?
December 10, 2012
Top Washington D.C. and American Farm Bureau lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher spoke on the current status of the Farm Bill, and the potential results of not having a Farm Bill passed by Jan. 1, 2013, at the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation Annual Meeting in Laramie, WY, on Nov. 16.
"Frank Lucas, Chair of House Committee, said the problem with the Farm Bill is,'my friends on the left don't want to spend any money on rural America, and my friends on the right don't want to spend any money on anybody, for any reason.' And, that probably got worse now that we have a more liberal left and a more conservative right," explained Thatcher of one prime issue faced in getting the Farm Bill passed before the first of the year.
She added that the new faces in Congress as a result of recent election pose another hurdle.
"We have a built in problem, especially as we think about all these members of Congress that haven't been around very long, of them thinking that every farmer out there is rich," explained Thatcher, adding that main stream media and environmental agencies are not helping this persona, and the one respite has been the drought coverage people have seen regularly in the past year.
If passed, the Farm Bill will cost a trillion dollars over the next 10 years, with 78 percent of those dollars going toward nutrition programs, including food stamps, Women, Infant, Children (WIC), school breakfast and school lunch funding.
About seven percent would be for commodity programs including direct prices and payments, marketing loans and the ACRE (Average Crop Election Program) program. Another seven percent will go toward all the conversation programs, and nine percent is slated to cover crop insurance.
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"There's a little slit, about one-half of one percent, and that is everything else in the Farm Bill. That is livestock, fruits and vegetables, credit, research, rural development, organic agriculture, etc." noted Thatcher.
She continued, explaining the Farm Bill passed through the Senate in June, passed in the House Ag Committee in July, and people have been waiting for the House Leadership to say it can be taken to the floor of the House since that time.
"When you think about what the 2008 and 2012 Farm Bills look like, they're pretty darn similar. There are about 13 titles, including a commodity title, crop insurance title, livestock title, credit title, etc… If I looked at everything except commodities and nutrition, they're all awfully similar. The fact is, the staff could probably sit down, and in about two hours, conference out the differences between them," stated Thatcher.
When looking at what passed the Senate and House Ag Committee, there was roughly a 25 percent cut to the commodity program and a nine to 10 percent cut in the conservation program. The Senate also cut one-tenth of one percent, and the House cut two-tenths of one percent, in all of the nutrition spending.
"While I would never tell you I think food stamps is the only thing holding up the Farm Bill, I do think it's the major thing," stated Thatcher on why some understanding about food stamps, and their impact on passing a Farm Bill, is important.
She highlighted a graph showing the progression of zero dollars spent on food stamps in 1962, to the proposed $800 billion that will be spent through the proposed Farm Bill over the next 10 years, adding the cost of food stamps has doubled since Obama took office. Today, 47 million Americans are on food stamps.
"Now we're at the point where 58 percent of the people in this country get a free school lunch, 73 percent get a free school breakfast, another eight percent get both of them. So, you have a third of the kids that pay for their breakfast, and less than one out of five that pay for their lunch.
"Lots and lots of free, and those cuts are the big ticket items we're fighting over on this. If I told you the Senate passed a bill that saved $4 billion in nutrition programs, and the House Ag Committee saved $16 billion, and that was out of a pot of money of $772 billion, you would all say, 'what the heck?'" explained Thatcher of why it's difficult to understand the inability in Congress to agree on a figure somewhere between $4 billion and $16 billion in cuts to the nutrition program.
In general, she explained, the Republicans don't believe $16 billion is enough in cuts, and the Democrats don't feel any money can be taken out at all, and therefore neither party can agree on a way to move forward.
One highlight in Thatcher's opinion was a well drafted conservation title by both the Senate and House Ag Committee.
"We're going to take 23 different conservation programs and ratchet it down to 13. Hopefully that makes it easier for you, and when you go sign up for a program you will be less confused. Hopefully, it makes it a whole lot easier for NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) to figure out how to help you.
"We are going to take the vast majority of money that comes out of that nine or 10 percent cut in conservation from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) by saying the cap of 32 million acres, which is all you can rule in CRP before this, will now be capped at 25 million. Our delegates have said for a long time if we have to take money out of conservation programs, we would rather take it out of retirement type programs than out of working land programs," explained Thatcher of where the conservation cuts will be seen.
The requirement of 60 percent of the EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) going toward livestock producers will be continued if the bill passes. The research title of the bill is slated to have more money than ever before, with about 100 programs that haven't been well utilized in that title being eliminated, and new programs slated that focus on young farmers and ranchers.
"One of the things in the House bill that isn't in the Senate, and another reason we would love to get this bill through the House floor, is we passed HR 872, which was EPA's (Environmental Protection Agency) idea that you couldn't spray on, or around, or over water. We think if we can get it pass the House we may have a shot of actually passing that," noted Thatcher.
Should the bill not be passed by Jan. 1, 2013, livestock disaster assistant will cease to exist. Another issue centers on the 37 provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill that had no funding. They expired and Congress had to locate funding. If a new Farm Bill isn't passed, options for dealing with funding of these 37 provisions include allowing the bill to revert to the 1949 act, which Thatcher described as highly inequitable.
"If I could pick to be anything in the Farm Bill, I would pick to be crop insurance or sugar because I have thought they had the best chance of surviving unscathed. However, while I think crop insurance is the safest thing we have now, if we by some unknown reason pass this in the next month, I think crop insurance goes from the top of the list to the bottom of the list – to the thing I would least like to be next year. That's where the money is, so that's where they're going to hit," said Thatcher of how quickly the dynamics could change for programs should the bill pass.
When asked why nutrition and agriculture aren't separated, Thatcher replied that if that occurred the current Farm Bill would be the last she ever worked on, noting 25 percent of the House of the Representatives have no farmers or ranchers in their district. Speaking directly to Congress members on the Farm Bill was Thatcher's suggestion as to how producers can provide the most aid in getting the bill passed.