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Pressure increases for new farm bill

Pressure increases for new farm bill

Congress expected to vote on new farm bill in January. Fight over nutrition program funding expected. Trade concerns also tied to the legislation. 

If positive statements from key farm bill negotiators are accurate a new farm bill could be up for a vote later this month.

Even so, as Congress reconvened in January several legislative issues are threatening to slow the farm bill’s promised march to both chambers’ floors. Among those issues -- especially potent in an election year -- are ways to handle millions of jobless Americans whose unemployment insurance benefits recently ran out and a push for an increase in the nation’s minimum wage.

Of more immediate concern is the continuing inability of farm bill conferees to coalesce around a nutrition funding cut number -- currently a reported $9 billion -- acceptable to enough members of either party to pass new legislation. The negotiated cut is unlikely to be palatable to a large faction of House Republicans (who have called for a $40 billion cut over a decade) and equally unacceptable to many Democrats (who have called for a cut of $4 billion).

Also in the mix: the last quarter of 2013 brought fears of negative consequences for U.S. agriculture-related trade on several fronts.

First, the White House cautioned that record U.S. agricultural exports were under threat ( without a new farm bill.

“We’ve experienced the strongest five-year period in the history of agricultural exports,” said Michael Scuse, USDA undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services in mid-December. “This past year was a record-breaking year of $140.9 billion in agricultural exports. It surpasses the record of two years, which was just over $137 billion. Last year, the number was $136 billion.

Federally-funded export programs were a critical piece of that export success, the White House pointed out.

“We have a need to continue this momentum and use some of these export programs that have been at our disposal in the past,” said Scuse. “We need a farm bill so we have these programs … to help small and medium-sized companies get into the foreign markets and promote their products. … It isn’t just about promoting agricultural products. As (Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack) likes to point out, it’s a food, farm and jobs bill. Every $1 billion in foreign trade supports nearly 8,000 jobs.”

The need for quick passage of a new farm bill is especially critical, said Scuse, because “we’re going to run out of the carryover funds for many of our cooperators during the month of January.”

Payments to Brazil

A second trade-related concern was first addressed by Vilsack in August. Vilsack said without Congressional action the United States would be unable to make good on $150 million annual payments to Brazil over a cotton subsidy-related trade settlement. The United States was forced to the negotiating table by a Brazil-friendly World Trade Organization ruling.

“I think it’s incumbent on Congress -- and I’m sure people are sensitive to this -- not to create another opportunity for the WTO to criticize the way in which we’re supporting producers and reducing the risk associated with farming,” said Vilsack.

“We’re obviously encouraging (lawmakers) to find that compromise that allows them to respond to the needs of all different types of commodities. … There needs to be a blend, a balance. There also needs to be an awareness that we’re engaged in a global economic activity and are abiding by the rules if we want others to abide by them.”

Brazil trade officials will decide by late February ( whether to pursue cross-retaliation measures, potentially worth $830 million annually and approved by the WTO, on all manner of U.S. export goods.  

In recent days, Mark Lange, CEO of the National Cotton Council, addressed the situation on The Hill blog (, where he encouraged more dialogue and cooperation between the nations.

Meanwhile, piling on more farm bill pressure over food stamps and nutrition, Kevin Concannon, USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, spoke with the media on Monday morning.

“We’re very anxious to have a farm bill … because it provides some stability for both families, organizations, states and counties in moving forward, providing and responding to people’s needs,” said Concannon.

“Of the considerations before Congress, personally I more generally favor the recommendations coming out the Senate. I’m pleased that there are negotiations underway to have a combined bill … that doesn’t deal with nutrition separately from other aspects of (agriculture). Staffers from the White House have been very actively involved in trying to bring to resolution the different groups in Congress.”

The stimulus benefit that expired last November hit “millions of households” leading to “food banks seeing more foot traffic because those households are suffering.”

Currently, said Concannon, “We’re living through a period with among the highest number of people who are ‘food insecure.’ I don’t particularly like that term because it sanitizes the experience. I think these are households where people have to skip meals or they have to serve food that (should be healthier).

“We certainly have the capacity as a country … to produce enough food for everybody in the United States and for most of the world. It’s a matter of getting our policies better aligned.”

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