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Senate Agriculture Committee leaders update farm bill progress

Senate Agriculture Committee leadership optimistic farm bill recently passed out of committee will soon hit the Senate floor. Procedures, differences with House discussed. How Brazilian concerns over cotton program were addressed.

On Wednesday morning, Senate Agriculture Committee leadership was optimistic a farm bill recently passed out of committee will soon hit the Senate floor.

That optimism comes following recent joint letters from senators and commodity/farm groups urging the Senate’s farm bill – which, to reduce the deficit, would cut some $23 billion over a decade -- be brought quickly to the full legislative body. The optimism was also expressed despite complaints from large numbers of South-based lawmakers, farmers and advocacy groups about gaps in the proposed legislation’s safety net.

For more, see here.

“We had overwhelming bipartisan support coming out of committee and we’re seeing (the same) on the floor,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “People are very pleased to see we’ve come together around a farm bill that represents the most significant reform in American agricultural policy in decades.”

The proposed legislation “has made it clear that the era of direct payments is over,” continued Stabenow. “That means we won’t be paying farmers for crops they don’t grow, for acres they don’t plant, or providing government assistance to farmers who are already doing very well.

“On the other hand, it’s very important to stress that we’ve implemented a single, responsible risk management program to be there when farmers need it. It is fair for everybody. It treats every covered commodity and every farmer in every state exactly the same way using actual planted acres, actual prices, actual yields in the same way for all crops. It’s very important to underline the fact that this is a market-oriented program – it’s market-oriented, multi-year assistance when prices go down. It supports farmers to be able to transition when prices go down. It doesn’t support high prices forever but allows farmers time to adjust and supports them. It (also) complements crop insurance, the basic foundation of our risk management system.”

It is critical, said Stabenow, that Congress “not kick the can down the road in the short-term or do piecemeal extensions. Our farmers need certainty to move forward, to plant, to be able to plan. … Congress needs to pass a farm bill this year – 16 million jobs hang in the balance.”

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, ranking member, largely sang from the same song sheet. Farmers and agriculture lenders “want to know what is in the farm bill. … We have an obligation and responsibility to get this down. All farm bills are like pushing a rope in trying to get everyone to work together. … Now, we need to get it to the floor.”

Both committee members said they’d talked to Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader, on the need to expedite the farm bill floor debate.

Reid, said Stabenow, “has committed to bringing the bill up. We’re just working with him on the timing.”

Roberts emphasized to Reid that “farmers and ranchers have to know what the farm bill will do. You just can’t put agriculture and everyone involved in purgatory then hope for the best by extending the (existing) farm bill. You’ll find yourself in a worse situation in 2013 or a lame-duck (session). We need to move this bill.”

While confident a farm bill can be agreed on between House and Senate, both Stabenow and Roberts admitted there were differences – including the possibility that the House will back target prices -- to work out. In fact, at the same time the senators spoke with reporters, the House Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management was holding a farm bill hearing on commodity programs and crop insurance. During that House hearing, worries that southern crops like rice and peanuts would be left without adequate risk management tools were expressed repeatedly.

Stabenow said she and Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, House Agriculture Committee chairman, have spoken “all the way through this process. … There is a different view. But I’m confident in conference committee we’ll be able to put this together.

“Interestingly, most of the bill we’ve come forward with reflects, very closely, what our common view was (last) fall. In the Commodity Title there are some differences but they can be worked out.”

The House “is doing their bill, we’re doing ours,” said Roberts. “The time for discussions in regard to working out differences will be when we go to conference. … We’re working as hard as we can to get this done.”

How did the Senate Agriculture Committee approach Brazilian concerns with the proposed cotton program (STAX)?

“We’ve met with the Brazilians and have listened to their concerns,” said Stabenow. “We took out the reference price. … We made some other modifications while still keeping intact the broad overview. … Because it’s insurance, farmers will be paying in – they’ll have skin in the game.  

“This is a crop insurance program and I appreciate the fact that the National Cotton Council and others came forward … when we asked folks who would be impacted by the changes we were making to give us suggestions on how to make sure things work for them. They did come forward and, as I understand it, are supporting what we’ve done and supporting our bill.”

For more farm bill coverage, see here.

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