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Farm Bill; Budget; Water Resources; Ag Economy; and, Immigration

Farm Bill: Conference Committee Meets Next Week

Ed O’Keefe reported in today’s Washington Post that, “Next week, Congress is expected to revive an old but increasingly rare tradition that may determine how well and how quickly the institution is able to recover from all the negative fallout of the recent government shutdown.

“More than three dozen members of the House and Senate plan to sit down in a room together and begin sorting out big differences on competing versions of a large piece of legislation.

Members of the House and Senate agriculture committees announced plans Wednesday to begin meeting to negotiate details of a new Farm Bill. The agriculture conference committee is a back-to-the-future moment for Congress, which in recent years has subverted the once long-standing practice of having conferees from the House and Senate meet to negotiate final versions of legislation passed in each chamber.”

The article noted that, “‘It’s long overdue,’ said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who chairs the Agriculture Committee.”

“Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.), the House Agriculture Committee chairman, will chair the meetings, which will begin Wednesday afternoon with a format that permits all 41 members to make public statements. From there, the path forward is unclear,” the article said.

“‘I personally believe that we can come up with a consensus bill,’ Lucas said Wednesday.”

Yesterday on the House floor, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) had a brief colloquy with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) on the Farm Bill.

Rep. Hoyer noted, “Let me ask the Majority Leader as well whether or not he has any information which might lead us to having some confidence that we might have progress on the conference on the Farm Bill.”

In part, Majority Leader Cantor indicated that, “And I would just underscore the fact, Mr. Speaker, that talks and negotiations are yes the way to go about  trying to accomplish more for the American people, and along those lines, it is about trying to focus on the things and the beliefs that we have in common, not allowing those things that we disagree on to get in the way.

“If that spirit of negotiations is adopted by both sides, I believe that there could be progress on the Farm Bill as well as other issues.”

A video replay of the brief colloquy between Reps. Hoyer and Cantor from yesterday has been posted here, at FarmPolicy.com Online.

A news release yesterday from Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.) stated that, “As Farm Bill negotiations ramp up in Congress, [Sen. Franken] led the push today to ensure that a new generation of farmers and ranchers continue to receive strong support.

“In a letter sent to members of the Senate’s Farm Bill conference committee—who decide what will be included in the final bill—Sen. Franken and 14 of his colleagues asked the group to preserve investments in federal programs that provide beginning farmers and ranchers with education and training, access to credit, and access to affordable land.”

And David Murray reported yesterday at the Great Falls Tribune (Mont.) Online that, “Next week Congress will begin a new round of farm bill negotiations when the House and Senate conference committee on the farm bill convenes. Whether the meetings are characterized by cooperation or discord remains anybody’s guess, but according to Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., public anger over the recent federal shutdown may be enough to prompt lawmakers to get the job done this time.”

Fredreka Schouten reported yesterday at USA Today Online that, “In the aftermath of the partial government shutdown, some Tea Party-aligned groups that helped push a conservative revolt in Congress over President Obama’s health care law are readying for Round 2.

“Their top target: the sweeping legislation that will set federal farm policy for years to come. Next week, a group of lawmakers will meet to begin hashing out differences between the Senate and House versions of the farm bill. Conservative groups, such as Heritage Action for America, are lobbying to jettison any compromise, saying neither version does enough to slash taxpayer subsidies to agribusiness.”

The article indicated that, “Mary Kay Thatcher, a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau, said the House and Senate measures contain ‘significant reform.’

“‘The elimination of direct payments is a big deal,’ she said. ‘It might not be enough reform for Heritage, but it’s real reform.’”

Ron Nixon reported in today’s New York Times that, “Food banks and other advocates are hoping to stop huge cuts to the food stamp program that they say will cause millions of people to go hungry.

“And farm groups are asking lawmakers to maintain certain farm subsidy programs and resist making changes to others, like the sugar program, which limits domestic production and imports. Farm groups have also asked lawmakers to resist changes to the crop insurance program, which environmental groups say provides incentives for farmers to plant crops on land that is not suitable for farming.”

And with respect to the executive branch, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney indicated yesterday at a news briefing that, “So this is not about, you know, mistrust between Democrats on the one side and Republicans on the other. I mean, a lot of these challenges have to do with allowing the natural bipartisan coalition that can be formed to form and for those bipartisan coalitions to vote on bipartisan solutions. If that happens, we can get comprehensive immigration reform. We can get a farm bill. We can get even a budget deal.”

Meanwhile, Peter Harriman reported yesterday at the Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, S.D.) Online that, “The inability of Congress to pass a new farm bill in a timely fashion and a livestock disaster provision in the bill likely to be capped at $100,000 if it is ever reauthorized will make it more difficult for western South Dakota ranchers to recover from the blizzard that killed as many as 30,000 cattle, according to Sen. Tim Johnson.”

 

Farm Bill – Policy Issues: Nutrition, Food Safety, Sugar, GMA

Reuters writer Charles Abbott reported yesterday that, “Food stamps are the paramount issue. The Republican-controlled House wants stricter eligibility rules that would save $39 billion over 10 years, about 10 times the cuts proposed by the Senate.

Other provisions that the conferees will wrestle with include requiring conservation practices of farmers, spending more on federally subsidized crop insurance and making the richest farmers pay more for insurance.”

Mr. Abbott pointed out that, “House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, who heads the conference committee, opposes Senate provisions that would tighten rules for subsidies for farmers, require farmers to practice conservation to qualify for crop insurance subsidies and make the wealthiest 1 percent of growers, with more than $750,000 adjusted gross income, pay more for the insurance.

“Conference committees typically need several weeks of work, much of it in private, to write a final version of a bill. A farm lobbyist said congressional staff already have resolved minor differences in noncontroversial sections of the bill.”

Michael Hiltzik indicated in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times that, “If you’ve been following the food stamp debate in Washington, you know it’s about whether to cut food stamp benefits for the disadvantaged by $4 billion a year (the House proposal) or only $400 million a year (the Senate plan).

“Here’s what you may not know: By its pure inaction, Congress is about to impose a cut in food stamp benefits that beats both. Next week, on Nov. 1, benefits will be cut by $5 billion for this fiscal year alone.

“That number may be hard to grasp, but here’s what it means on the ground. It means a loss of 21 meals a month for a family of four on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (the formal name for food stamps). About 47 million Americans will be affected by the coming 15% reduction in benefits across the board.”

More specifically, Mr. Hiltzik explained that, “The coming benefit cut is the perverse result of the fiscal stimulus legislation of 2009, followed by a couple of other stimulus measures enacted later. The 2009 stimulus measure increased monthly food stamp benefits by about $20 to $25 per month as a spur to economic recovery. For an eligible family of four, the increase of just over $80 a month raised the maximum benefit to $668, from $584.

“The idea was that the increase would fade away over time, as inflation increases brought the basic benefit up to that $668 level. The original estimate was that the increase would be completely eaten away by late 2014.

But Congress accelerated the sunset. In 2010, lawmakers moved up the expiration date to April 2014 to help pay for the Education Jobs Act, which raised federal funding for school districts to keep teachers on the job. Four months later, Congress moved up the expiration further, to this Oct. 31, to pay for the reauthorization of child nutrition programs. That’s known as taking away with one hand what you give with the other, and it’s where things stand today.”

In a separate issue regarding the SNAP program, Josh Gerstein reported yesterday at Politico that, “South Dakota’s Argus Leader newspaper urged a federal appeals court Wednesday to reverse a ruling blocking the newspaper from receiving data on how much the federal government pays to stores that redeem food stamp benefits.

“Jon Arneson, an attorney for the newspaper, told a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit that a lower court judge misinterpreted the law by ruling that a confidentiality provision for retailer applications allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to withhold all data on payments to those retailers. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the newspaper requested the data on annual payments to each retailer approved to take part in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.”

Also, Ben Goad reported yesterday at The Hill’s RegWatch Blog that, “Food safety advocates are urging members of a House-Senate conference committee to strike down a pair of GOP-backed amendments to the farm bill now under consideration.”

Mr. Goad pointed out that, “A measure penned by Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) would effectively derail major portions of the Food Safety Modernization Act from taking effect until further scientific and economic analysis has been conducted.”

“The groups also oppose a provision, authored by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), meant to stop states from adopting overly restrictive regulations on food produced in other states.”

In other news, Alexandra Wexler reported yesterday at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “U.S. sugar processors, struggling with a glut that has depressed prices, likely defaulted on more than half of the $233 million in outstanding federal loans that came due last month, traders and analysts say.

“Prior to the government’s shutdown that began Oct. 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website showed processors still owed on loans equal to 503,250 tons of sugar. Some traders estimate that as much as 70% of that total could be forfeited as collateral on unpaid debt. Market participants track forfeitures because they influence the amount of sugar available to buyers, which ultimately determines prices.”

And Kent Cooper reported yesterday at Roll Call Online that, “The Grocery Manufacturers Association [GMA] reported it spent $7,470,000 during the third quarter lobbying the executive and legislative branches. This was more than five times the $1,210,000 amount they reported spending in the second quarter. They reported spending $670,000 in the first quarter of 2013, and $750,000 in the fourth quarter of 2012. In the last 12 months they have spent $10,100,000 on lobbying.”

 

Budget

Pete Kasperowicz reported yesterday at The Hill’s Floor Action Blog that, “House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Wednesday that House Republicans will not consider a fiscal deal with Democrats that eliminates some of the sequester cuts by raising taxes.”

Also, Mike Lillis reported yesterday at The Hill Online that, “Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is urging congressional negotiators to finalize a 10-year budget deal before the Thanksgiving holiday.”

 

Water Resources

DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reported yesterday that, “Despite opposition from conservative groups in Washington, the House passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act 417-3 late Wednesday.

“The Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA, tells the Army Corps of Engineers how to spend its money on mandatory programs. Over the past decade, the Corps has spent an average of $5 billion annually on waterway construction projects based on WRDA authorization. The House bill adds ‘Reform’ to the title, calling it the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, or ‘WRRDA.’

“The Senate approved its waterways legislation with an 83-14 vote last May.”

A Statement of Administration Policy on the measure yesterday indicated that, “The Administration supports investing in the Nation’s water resources to build the foundation for long-term economic growth, to address significant risks to public safety, and to protect and restore our environment. The Administration’s key policies and principles will help meet our Nation’s water resources challenges in a fiscally responsible way. The Administration supports House passage of H.R. 3080 as it would advance some of these policies and principles, but it should be improved with additional reforms and modifications of problematic provisions.”

 

Agricultural / Rural Economy– Production, Biofuels, Biotech, Health Care

A report yesterday from USDA’s Economic Research Service (“U.S. Hog Production From 1992 to 2009: Technology, Restructuring, and Productivity Growth”) indicated that, “U.S. hog farm numbers dropped by 70 percent over 1991-2009 while hog inventories remained stable. The result has been an industry with larger hog enterprises, increased specialization in a single phase of production, greater reliance on purchased rather than homegrown feed, and greater us of production contracts. This structural change has led to higher productivity and lower pork prices.”

Also, Reuters writer Cezary Podkul reported earlier this week that, “Thirteen U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday urged the derivatives market regulator to examine fraud and manipulation in the cash market for ethanol blending credits known as RINs, the latest sign of intensified political scrutiny of the market following an unprecedented 2,900 percent spike in prices earlier this year.”

Amy Stillman reported earlier this week at The Financial Times Online that, “While GM foods may be unpalatable in some markets, such as Europe where they are more strictly regulated, they are gaining ground in Brazil.

“Since regulatory approval in 2003, GM soya has grown to represent about 85 per cent of Brazil’s crop. The nation is the second biggest soya exporter after the US.

“The country is of rising importance as a biotechnology destination, and Monsanto’s latest pest-resistant soyabean – the first specifically for South American growers – goes on sale in Brazil this year.”

Meanwhile, Reed Abelson, Katie Thomas and Jo Cravin McGinty reported in today’s New York Times that, “As technical failures bedevil the rollout of President Obama’s health care law, evidence is emerging that one of the program’s loftiest goals — to encourage competition among insurers in an effort to keep costs low — is falling short for many rural Americans.

“While competition is intense in many populous regions, rural areas and small towns have far fewer carriers offering plans in the law’s online exchanges. Those places, many of them poor, are being asked to choose from some of the highest-priced plans in the 34 states where the federal government is running the health insurance marketplaces, a review by The New York Times has found.”

 

Immigration

Jake Sherman reported yesterday at Politico that, “Speaker John Boehner was non-committal about bringing an immigration reform bill to the House floor this year.

“Speaking Wednesday morning after a closed party meeting at the Capitol Hill Club, Boehner said immigration reform is an ‘important subject that needs to be addressed, and I’m hopeful’ that something could happen before the end of the year.”

Also, Seung Min Kim reported yesterday at Politico that, “Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is planning to release legislation next week that would provide legal status for six years to undocumented immigrants in the United States, he said in an interview Wednesday.

“Issa, an influential Republican who leads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, described the legislation as a ‘come-from-the-shadows’ effort that would allow the government to do a full accounting of those who are in the U.S. illegally. Immigrants in this new status would be able to travel to their native country while on this temporary visa, he said.”

More specifically with respect to agriculture, Miriam Jordan reported yesterday at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “The government shutdown froze visa processing for thousands of temporary agriculture workers, raising concerns about a labor shortage just as the harvest kicks off for the multibillion-dollar citrus and vegetable industries.

“Growers worry that without enough pickers, produce could be left rotting in the fields. Groups representing growers in Florida, California and Arizona are working furiously with members of Congress to urge the government to expedite processing for H-2A seasonal agriculture visas.”

Keith Good