Farm Bill in Doubt if We "Don't Sing Off the Same Sheet of Music," Lucas SaysTue, 28 Feb 2012 16:53:39 CST
One of the biggest challenges facing Oklahoma Representative Frank Lucas as he works to forge a farm bill is how to get all the disparate groups to pull in the same direction. In an interview with Ron Hays, the House Committee on Agriculture Chairman said the obstacles facing his committee as they work on farm legislation are enormous.
To begin with, everyone knows budgets will be smaller next year, he said. The question is how much smaller. Lucas said he and Senate Agriculture Food and Forestry Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow had agreed in December to write legislation anticipating $23 billion in cuts. Since then, the President’s budget shows a $32 billion reduction in spending for farm programs. That budget, declared dead on arrival by both the House and Senate is off the table. Lucas said one proposal for a new budget being floated in the House by Paul Ryan entails $40 billion dollars in cuts.
“What I’ve essentially told folks is ‘The stronger the farm bill, the more resources you’ve got to give me to work with. The more you expect agriculture to give up, the less of a safety net you’ll have for farmers, ranchers, and consumers.’ But I’m ultimately going to work with the number that’s given me.”
Lucas said despite the willingness to work with whatever money is available, the uncertainty over spending levels slows the process to a crawl.
The only thing he has been able to convince the leadership of is that “We have to action before the end of September. We cannot revert to the old 1949 Permanent Law. Now, whether that entails my preference of writing a full five-year farm bill or ultimately a combination of short-term extension of the full farm bill or an extension of existing policy until we can write a full farm bill, that’s the kind of discussions I’m having on my side with my leadership.”
Lucas said he thinks the action taken by the Senate Ag Committee to accelerate its hearings on the conservation title of the farm bill is a positive step, but given the way Washington works, it may mean little. Questions about the possibility of having a farm bill before Easter, may be optimistic, Lucas said, but Senate Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow “wants to move quicker rather than later and she told me early on if she had everything together in her chamber, she would move heaven and earth to get it done. I think there is an indication by moving up those hearing dates that perhaps the pieces are coming together. But that is only speculation on my part.”
Some of the dissension on how to proceed with a comprehensive farm bill, Lucas said, is differences in approach on how the bill should work. There are those who advocate for a “shallow loss” approach and those who prefer crop insurance as the major policy initiative. With money difficulties on the horizon, Lucas said a bill that provides for both may be difficult to achieve.
“That’s the real question, will we have enough money to do both. If you’re going to have cuts that are 30 billion or 40 billion dollars or more, it makes it really, really difficult to do both and you can’t just halfway do one or the other. You’ve got to have both elements if you’re going to have a real safety net as some seem to think by stepping off direct payments.
“I have regions that are more focused on the revenue side of the equation. I have regions that are more focused on the crop side of the equation. And then I have regions that look me in the eye and say very straightforwardly “insurance won’t do what we have to have done.” Which is why in the Hyatt bill in December the focus was on options to allow producers to do what is appropriate for their situation. The thinner your soil is, the more erratic your weather is, the more you need options.”
Unfortunately, Lucas said, providing options is expensive.
Another issue not directly related to the farm bill process but that ultimately impacts rural America is the issue of regulations. Lucas said many of the proposals on the table are corrosive to Americans’ way of life.
“As I understand the net effect of what the Department of Labor essentially set out to do was that it would change fundamentally how we do our farm practices in the country side. It would rob from young and women the opportunity to have learning experiences, to have all the things that go with farming.
“I know the administration, at least on the surface, appeared to back off, but this is one of the areas where we have to stay after them. And it’s not just the ag committees, its several different committees’ jurisdictions too. They will fundamentally change the nature of our rural society if they enforce some version of what they started out with. And that would be very tragic for future generations of young men and women.”
Lucas said that while the administration has made a few noises that it will re-evaluate some of the more burdensome proposals, he hasn’t seen any indication they are really backing down.
“The administration appears to be paying lip service to many of these issues, but I don’t believe they’ve changed their mind. I don’t believe they’ve stepped away from any of their goals whether it’s at Labor or EPA. I think they just understand that in an even-numbered year when the President’s standing for re-election they can’t be as militant with the bureaucracy, with the rule-making process as they seem to want to be.
“They understand that right now, with the House in the conservative hands it’s in and the Senate seemingly unable to move much of anything, they can’t by law do the things they want to do. So in rules and regulations, they are attempting to enforce their perspective on business on rural America. That’s been one of my concerns since day one. It’s the lack of understanding, the lack of sensitivity at the White House for what goes on in the countryside, what goes on in rural America. Production agriculture and processing, we feed the world. We feed America. We do things that they just don’t seem to understand.”
With the announcement of closings of many of the FSA offices in smaller towns throughout the country, Lucas said it’s a painful thing, but budgets are coming down. He thinks the USDA has been acting properly in the closure of the affected offices.
“I think they’re following the rules in how they’re going about their consolidations and closings. I’m not happy about having facilities close down within the third District or anywhere else across the country, but the tough part is an acknowledgement, I think, by the leadership in the Ag Committee, certainly in the House, both the majority and the minority, that the budget situation is going to be so tough over the next couple of years that whether it’s writing the Farm bill or the annual appropriations process, that we just don’t have the resources to continue to do everything we have the way we have been doing it, and by the department going after some of the smaller FSA offices, some of the smaller facilities that’s just an acknowledgment that when you run out of money, something has to happen.
Amidst the turmoil, Lucas said all is not lost, but the window of opportunity is closing.
“It is still possible to have a farm bill, but it is becoming more and more difficult to accomplish as the days and the weeks go along. And at some point we’ll have to make a decision on how to salvage the situation if we cannot get a complete bill put together in time.
“And I would offer this thought up, too: One of the great strengths of rural America in the three previous farm bills I’ve been a part of is that even though we didn’t necessarily agree by region, we didn’t necessarily agree by policy group, we came together as producers, as processors, the whole country, to push for some common farm policy.
“That common spirit has not been achieved yet and if we cannot work together as a whole unit, rural America that is, we will not succeed in this farm bill process. That is one of the things that causes me the greatest amount of personal angst. And I’m trying hard to get everybody to pull together.
“If we don’t sing off the same sheet of music, there won’t be a song.”
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