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Farm Bill; Budget Issues; Immigration; and, the Ag Economy

Farm Bill

Reuters writer Charles Abbott reported yesterday that, “President Barack Obama, in a rebuke to proposals by House Republicans for steep cuts in food stamps for the poor, urged Congress on Thursday to pass a farm bill ‘that protects children and vulnerable adults in time of need.’

“Obama put the long-delayed bill, more than a year overdue, among three priorities for resolution by end of the year. Also on the list were immigration reform and a budget agreement.”

The article noted that, “In remarks at the White House, Obama said ‘we should pass a farm bill, one that American farmers and ranchers can depend on; one that protects vulnerable children and adults in times of need; one that gives rural communities opportunities to grow and the long-term certainty that they deserve.’

“The administration has threatened twice to veto large cuts in food stamps. It said Congress should instead end the $5 billion-a-year ‘direct payment’ subsidy to farmers and scale back on federal subsidies for crop insurance.

Obama credited the Senate for writing ‘a solid, bipartisan’ bill. ‘If House Republicans have ideas that they think would improve the farm bill, let’s see them. Let’s negotiate. What are we waiting for? Let’s get this done,’ said Obama.”

Mr. Abbott added that, “In response, the House Agriculture Committee said the four leaders of the House and Senate committees met on Wednesday to get negotiations moving. The first meeting of the 41 ‘conferees’ from the House and Senate, appointed to write a compromise farm bill, was expected by the end of the month.”

Steven T. Dennis reported yesterday at Roll Call Online that, “The president urged Congress to stop listening to the lobbyists and the ‘bloggers’ and professional activists who he said profit off conflict and instead to work with him to get things done that they can all agree on.

“He said it was time for Congress to finally craft a ‘balanced’ budget deal (with new revenue alongside entitlement trims), send an immigration overhaul to his desk and complete a farm bill now in a conference committee.”

In a brief video yesterday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack also commented on the need for Congressional action on a budget, a new Farm Bill and comprehensive immigration reform.

In addition, Sec. Vilsack provided comments on the South Dakota livestock disaster and noted that USDA Under Secretary Michael Scuse will be going there to get first hand information.

Also, in response to a question at a briefing yesterday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney indicated that, “First, I think no one in Washington could possibly suggest that getting a bipartisan budget deal, getting comprehensive immigration reform passed on a bipartisan basis, and getting a farm bill passed on a bipartisan basis, would be small or inconsequential in terms of the achievement.

The president laid those out because he made clear that those are things that Congress can do, working together in a bipartisan fashion this year, in what remains of this year, because there are budgets that have been passed by the Senate and the House, and there is a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate and is waiting for action in the House, and there was a bipartisan comprehensive farm bill that was passed by the Senate that the House could act on, as opposed to pursuing the purely partisan effort that they worked on in the past.”

Mr. Carney also stated that, “We saw bipartisan votes, I think 80 senators, was it, who voted for the [budget] measure last night, and bipartisan vote in the House, and we can — we’ve seen a bipartisan vote on comprehensive immigration reform. We’ve seen a bipartisan vote on a farm bill. You know, there’s — there’s enormous opportunity here to get some significant work done on behalf of the American people.”

Kristina Peterson reported yesterday at the Washington Wire Blog (The Wall Street Journal) that, “With little clearing Congress beyond must-pass legislation, aides and lawmakers see the farm bill as one of the only major measures that could be approved before the end of 2013. The last farm bill technically expired at the end of September, but lawmakers are working to draft a new five-year bill before year’s end, when the first programs would start to be affected by the lapse.

It won’t be easy. Internal fractures within the Republican Party sank the House’s first effort in June to pass a traditional broad farm bill, prompting GOP leaders to split the legislation. A bill extending just agriculture programs passed the House in July. The chamber last month passed a separate bill funding nutrition programs, or food stamps, that reduced spending by nearly $40 billion over 10 years to address the concerns of conservatives who had lobbied for the cuts. The Senate passed a bill in June that combines both agriculture and nutrition programs, with only $4 billion in food stamp cuts.”

The Journal update indicated that, “‘The fate of the farm bill is going to rest on how this nutrition title is handled,’ Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, one of the House Democratic negotiators, said Thursday. ‘If you don’t resolve that issue in a way that moves more toward the Senate version, I don’t think you can pass the farm bill in the House.’

“Because some of the most conservative GOP lawmakers are likely to vote against a compromise bill, Democrats hope House GOP leaders resign themselves to passing legislation with the help of Democrats, as House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) was forced to do to pass Wednesday night’s budget deal.”

Also, an update yesterday at The Foundry Blog (The Heritage Foundation) stated that, “Sound agriculture and food stamp policy should be the goal, not getting a farm bill done at all costs based on an artificial timeline. The House and Senate are going to conference on their flawed farm bills, making it unlikely that good policy will come out. It would be better to have an extension than to lock in five years of bad policy.

“Good policy would free farmers and ranchers from government intervention and recognize that the agriculture sector is a prosperous and innovative sector of the economy. Food stamps would promote self-sufficiency by requiring work for able-bodied adults.”

The Heritage update stated that, “By separating out food stamps from the agriculture programs, these critical issues could be considered on their own merits. Otherwise, the unholy alliance of rural legislators (who tend to support agriculture programs) and urban legislators (who tend to support food stamps) helps to get a bill through without proper review or a chance at real reform.”

Meanwhile, in a telenews conference with reporters yesterday, Senator Mike Johanns (R., Neb.) noted that, “You know, the President mentioned the Farm Bill today. He mentioned three things that could get the economy going, and in that list was the Farm Bill, so I appreciate the President offering his thoughts that one way to get the economy going is to get a Farm Bill done. There is a conference Committee. Again, there’s a pretty big difference, but it — it really is focused and isolated on one thing, and that is the nutrition title. And there’s a big difference.

“The Senate bill says $4 billion in cuts, the House bill says $40 billion in cuts. There’s a big difference here, obviously, tenfold. But having said that, I think there’s some really, really positive things you could do with the nutrition title. I do think you can save money there. That — that title has grown exponentially. We — when I was at the USDA, we had 27 million people on food stamps. Today, it’s 47 million. It’s astounding. Part of that is the economy, but part of it is that there’s so many ways to be eligible food — for food stamps when under the law you really don’t qualify, so I really do believe there’s things that can be done here, and if each side is willing to give some here, we can get a Farm Bill. And this is one where I agree with the President.

“I think one of the things we can do to — to stabilize the economy and move the economy forward is to get predictability for the rural sector of our economy for the next five years and get a 5-year Farm Bill done, and my hope is that we’ll have successful conference and can get that done.”

A news release yesterday from the National Milk Producers Federation stated that, “More than 50 state and national dairy and farm organizations have joined together to urge congressional farm bill conferees to adopt the Senate’s Dairy Security Act (DSA), because it offers farmers the most effective safety net for the future. The groups expressed their support in a joint letter sent today to the Senate and House members who will decide the fate of the 2013 farm bill.”

In other policy developments, Keith Laing reported yesterday at The Hill’s Transportation Blog that, “Advocates for water projects are defending the inclusion of an increase in funding for a dam project in Kentucky that was included in the deal that was approved late Wednesday to avert a potential default and reopen the federal government.

“Conservative groups sharply criticized Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for putting an increase in funding for the Olmsted Locks and Dam, which is under construction on the Ohio River between Kentucky and Illinois, into the agreement he reached with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).”

The update noted that, “However, the Alexandria, Va.-based Waterways Council said on Thursday that the provision in the debt-ceiling bill was not an earmark.

“‘To be clear, no money has been expended in this action by Congress,’ Waterways Council President Michael Toohey said in a statement.  ‘It simply raises the ceiling on the cost of project that was set in 1986 to allow work to continue in 2013 and beyond.’”

And Pete Kasperowicz reported yesterday at The Hill’s Floor Action Blog that, “House Republicans will follow up last night’s bipartisan vote to end the government shutdown with a bipartisan bill authorizing port, waterway and flood protection projects around the country.

“Members will consider the Water Resources reform and Development Act, H.R. 3080, when the House returns next week from its extra-long weekend.”

And on the issue of food safety, Julian Hattem reported yesterday at The Hill’s RegWatch Blog that, “Two House Democrats who have long been concerned about food safety are concerned that public health agencies haven’t done enough to combat an ongoing salmonella outbreak.

“Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) on Thursday sent letters to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) expressing a ‘deep concern’ about the outbreaks, which have been traced to Foster Farms chicken facilities.”


Budget: Impacts of Impasse

A news release yesterday from USDA indicated that, “[USDA] today announced that the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and World Agricultural Outlook Board (WAOB) have cancelled or postponed publication of selected USDA statistical reports impacted by the lapse in federal funding.

“NASS’s Crop Production and Cotton Ginnings reports and the WAOB’s World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) scheduled for October 11th are canceled. The next scheduled release for these reports is November 8, 2013. Additionally, NASS’s Crop Progress reports scheduled for October 7th and 15th are cancelled. NASS’s Cattle on Feed and Peanut Prices reports scheduled for October 18th are postponed.”

And a news item from the Western Growers Association yesterday indicated that, “America’s nearly four billion dollar winter vegetable harvest is in jeopardy. The Obama Administration needs to take immediate action to expedite pending foreign worker visa applications that have been stalled during the government shutdown.

The Office of Foreign Labor Certification at the U.S. Dept. of Labor (DOL) has been shuttered since October 1 and the processing of H-2A applications were halted just when the growing season for winter vegetables was getting under way. Ninety percent of the country’s vegetables are grown in the desert regions of Arizona and California in winter time. Applications have not been processed for more than two weeks and the backlog of paperwork has grown. If H-2A workers are not in place by November 18, consequences will be dire. It usually takes at least eight weeks to process the applications of H-2A workers.”


Budget: Looking Ahead

Ginger Gibson reported yesterday at Politico that, “The budget conference committee, which is being tasked with trying to find common spending ground between the House and Senate, got off to a quick start, but it remains uncertain if they’ll reach a productive conclusion.

“The four leaders on the conference committee — Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) — met for breakfast Thursday morning to start their discussions.”

The article noted that, “The conference committee will be responsible for returning a spending plan to both chambers by Dec. 13. There is no immediate fallout if they end in stalemate. But if no progress is made before the continuing resolution runs out in January, Congress will be right back where it started on Oct. 1 when the government shutdown.

The House and the Senate each passed budgets in March. But previous attempts to convene a conference committee to try to iron out the difference between the two documents failed.”

Lori Montgomery and Zachary A. Goldfarb reported in today’s Washington Post that, “Rather than trying to hash out a full budget blueprint, many lawmakers and independent analysts expect the conference committee to focus on the most urgent issue facing Congress: funding federal agencies through fiscal 2014.

“Murray’s budget would set agency spending at $1.058 trillion, while Ryan’s budget calls for $967 billion, a level that assumes that the next round of sequester cuts takes effect on Jan. 15.

Both sides are interested in canceling the cuts and replacing them with other savings.”



David Nakamura reported in today’s Washington Post that, “With Democrats convinced that they have the GOP on the defensive, the president cited the passage of an immigration bill, along with securing a long-term budget and a farm bill, as top priorities over the next three months. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) also place immigration atop the Democratic agenda for the remainder of the year.

“But it’s not clear that GOP lawmakers, who took the brunt of public blame for the 16-day shutdown, will be forced to the negotiating table. Some key Republicans said this week that Obama’s hard-line position during the fiscal talks, in which he refused to negotiate, had further damaged his credibility with a caucus already skeptical of his agenda.

“Rep. Raul R. Labrador (R-Idaho) told a conservative audience on Wednesday that ‘it would be crazy for the House Republican leadership to enter into negotiations with him on immigration.’”

The Post article indicated that, “House GOP leaders remained largely silent on the issue Thursday. A spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) said he ‘remains committed to a common-sense, step-by-step approach that ensures we get immigration reform done right.’

“Boehner has said the House will not support a bipartisan plan approved by the Senate in June that features a 13-year path to citizenship for the nation’s 12 million undocumented immigrants. Instead, House leadership has said it is pursuing a series of smaller-scale bills, a tactic that immigration advocates view as a cloaked attempt to kill any momentum for a deal.”

The Washington Post editorial board also provided analysis on the immigration issue in an item in today’s paper titled, “House Republicans can break the immigration impasse.”


Agricultural Economy

John Eligon reported in today’s New York Times that, “While three generations of the Sorenson family have made their livelihood growing wheat and other crops here, they also have learned to embrace the furious pace of North Dakota’s oil exploration. After all, oil money helped the Sorensons acquire the land and continue to farm it.

But more oil means more drilling, resulting in tons of waste that is putting cropland at risk and raising doubt among farmers that these two cash crops can continue to coexist.

“A private company is trying to install a landfill to dispose of solid drilling waste on a golden 160-acre wheat field across the road from Mike and Kim Sorenson’s farmhouse. Although the engineers and regulators behind the project insist that it is safe for the environment, the Sorensons have voiced concern that salt from the drilling waste could seep onto their land, which would render the soil infertile and could contaminate their water, causing their property value to drop.”

The article noted that, “Oil companies in North Dakota disposed of more than a million tons of drilling waste last year, 15 times the amount in 2006, according to Steven J. Tillotson, the assistant director of the Division of Waste Management for the state’s Health Department. Seven drilling waste landfills operate in the state, with 16 more under construction or seeking state approval.

Landowners who lease their acreage see a reward, while neighboring farmers often protest the potential harm to their pastures. Farmers here complain that state officials promote policies that help the energy sector grow rapidly with little regard for the effect on their livelihoods.”

Keith Good