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Is it back to square one for agriculture cuts?

Is it back to square one for agriculture cuts?

When the “Super Committee” on debt reduction failed to come up with its assigned task of developing at least $1.2 trillion in federal spending cuts, the question became what would happen to the proposed $23 billion in cuts that the leadership of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees had put on the table to try and protect the baseline budget for agriculture and serve as a starting point for the discussions of the new farm bill.

Writing the new farm bill with a Republican House, a Democrat Senate, and the 2012 presidential election hanging over everything that goes on in Washington “is going to be a little crazy,” says Dale W. Moore.

“It’s going to have a lot of folks scratching their heads, trying to see where things are headed,” he said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation at Jackson.

Then, once the new law is in place, “We’ll have to follow through on the regulations that are written to make sure the administration doesn’t come up with some creative ways to implement them that would not be in agriculture’s best interests.”

Moore, who is the new deputy director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, comes to the organization with a broad background in the legislative and policy arena, having served eight years as chief of staff at USDA, four years as executive director of legislative affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, four years as minority counsel for the House Agriculture Committee, and six years as agriculture legislative assistant for U.S. Rep. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. And he has worked on six farm bills.

When the “Super Committee” on debt reduction failed to come up with its assigned task of developing at least $1.2 trillion in federal spending cuts, Moore says, “the question then became what would happen to the proposed $23 billion in cuts that the leadership of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees had put on the table to try and protect the baseline budget for agriculture and serve as a starting point for the discussions of the new farm bill.

“More important to some was the question: Can we get back to square one and start the process over?

“The ag committee chairs  quietly indicated they wanted to go back to ‘regular order’ — to sit down and determine what’s the budget baseline, what’s the policy bottom line they’re going to start from in the farm bill discussions?”

All that, he says, must also be considered in the context of the various groups seeking to influence the debate.

“There are the reformers, like the Environmental Working Group, the Humane Society of the United States, and others that have made a life’s work of trying to reform farm programs and now sense a new opportunity to influence this farm bill process.

“Then, there is Congress, examining all sectors of the budget with a microscope. The non-ag members are looking at high commodity prices, record exports, and a decade’s worth of reports of high net farm income, and they’re saying, ‘Well, if we’re going to take money from someone, we may as well take it from agriculture — they’ve got plenty right now and they don’t need it.’”

Even the $23 billion put forth by the agriculture committees for cuts in spending over the 10-year period was less than the amount of cuts wanted by others, Moore says.

“It was about $8 billion to $10 billion less than leadership on both sides of the Hill had been talking about, and $15 billion to $18 billion less than President Obama’s team was proposing.

$23 billion may be floor for cuts

“But, I really believe that as we go into the farm bill debate, the $23 billion figure will be the floor for the discussion. The number’s unlikely to get smaller. But just how it will be spread out over the multiple titles of the farm bill is anyone’s guess.

“If I were going to guess, I’d think we could still see the proposed $15 billion come out of Title 1 spending, and that there would also be a good chunk that would come out of conservation spending.”

It’s a given, Moore says, that “everybody’s going to have to give up something. The question now is, will the cutting process be fair? And fair depends on whom you’re talking to. If it’s not my program or my issue, then the cuts may seem fair to me. My program or my issue, then I can make a strong case that you can’t cut my program — that it’s an investment in the future. This kind of discussion is about 90 percent of what ‘s going to take place with this farm bill.”

The agriculture committees are likely to keep some elements of the current farm program, he says, “but if you’re going to look at where it’s easiest to pull out money the quickest, it will probably be taking direct payments, ACRE, and SURE out of title one.”

Of those, the program with the greatest likelihood for cuts, Moore says, is SURE — “not because the concept isn’t popular, but just because the program itself has been frustrating to those trying to access it and hasn’t provided what had been hoped.”

Between direct payments and ACRE, there has been something of a “pick the program you want to cut” discussion, he says.

“As the debate has gone forward, the discussion on shallow loss was leading the pack until various groups in different areas of the country pointed to inequities based on their calculations. So, some of them came up with the Stacked Income Protection Plan (STAX), others put forth a plan for higher deficiency payments, and American Farm Bureau itself worked on something called the Systemic Risk Reduction Program (SRRP).

“But we were told that we got to the party too late to have SRRP considered, so we sort of stepped back to see where things would go on the over-arching effort to reduce the deficit.

“Now that we’re back to regular order, it gives us an opportunity to try and move ahead with SRRP. But as our president, Bob Stallman, has said, we need to make sure we continue to analyze it thoroughly and get input from all across the country to address concerns that have been or will be raised.”

Moore says he and John Anderson, AFBF economics analyst in Washington, recently met with USDA economists and policy specialists to seek input on where they might see the gaps in the SRRP proposal.

“I think it’s important that we examine all the angles to be sure SRRP will meet the needs of as many as possible with the resources provided.”

Communication, collaboration, cooperation

There are a lot of aspects of crop insurance that haven’t worked as well in the South as in other parts of the country, or as well as the marketing loan has worked in some commodities, Moore says “ and while these may be fiddled with, I think they going to remain relatively unchanged as we go through this discussion.”

Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, got provisions into the Super Committee’s deliberations that would lay the groundwork for the dairy section of the farm bill, Moore says.

“In my years in Washington, pulling together a dairy proposal has involved a lot of challenges because of the differences among the dairy sectors around the country. Now, as we go back to regular order, it’s going to be interesting to see how various regions of the country look at Mr. Peterson’s proposal in terms of how the dairy title will work for them.”

Among other issues of interest to agriculture, Moore says, will be taxes and financial reform.

“Taxes were part of the last farm bill, because that’s how it was paid for. My big, big hope is that the ag committees find ways to make the numbers work for the next farm bill without having to go the tax committees.“I really doubt, because of the Dodd-Frank Act, that financial reform will be overlooked. The House committee chairman has had multiple hearings over the past year focusing on this particular topic. I would be surprised if there isn’t something in the farm bill to try and get a handle on the whole Dodd-Frank reform, how it affects agriculture, and how commodities are traded in Chicago.”

Moore noted that his former boss, Rep. Pat Roberts of Kansas, “was fond of saying that though we get frustrated with the taxes we have to pay, we should be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.

“We often hear people say it would be nice if we could just get the federal government to be more businesslike — but if you go back and read Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and others of our founding fathers, they wanted to form a government that would be noisy, messy, and one in which people could be participants and make their opinions known.”

Communication, collaboration, and cooperation are “the fertilizer and water that keep the seed of public policy growing,” Moore says.

“Leadership, such as that provided by Farm Bureau and other organizations at the community, state, and Washington levels, builds the strength that protects the crop. Then, we have to watch the horizon and be mindful of the intersections with other issues and interests, especially those who would try and knock us off the road. This [new farm bill] is going to be a long process, and patience is a valuable commodity in working toward and achieving our goals.

“But in all of this, don’t be bashful about communicating your thoughts to us and giving us your input and ideas.”

Moore noted that Chuck Connor, former deputy secretary of agriculture and special assistant on agriculture for President Bush, made the point that “the thing that’s most important in budget discussions and farm bill development is for the commodity and farm groups work together in trying to reach common ground.

“And I can tell you, one thing that will cause us to lose ground on the things we’re trying to protect is the ability of the reformers — whether they’re on the budget side of the equation or the policy side — to split agriculture, or wait until we’re so busy fighting each other that they can come in on the other side with something we don’t want.”

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