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Keith Good Farm Policy: Senate May Have Farm Bill Next Week

Mike Christensen
By Mike Christensen April 18, 2012

Farm Bill Developments: Timing, SNAP Issues and Conservation

DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reported yesterday that, “Senate Agriculture Committee leaders are ready to hold a committee meeting next week to adopt and pass a new farm bill.

“Reflecting a bipartisanship not seen recently, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said she and ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., will have a ‘joint mark for the committee,’ meaning they will present one bill to the entire committee under both of their names. The formal mark could be released by the end of this week, she said.

“Stabenow hasn’t officially announced a markup date, but the Senate Agriculture Committee is planning for April 25. It’s possible the mark-up session could take more than one day.”

The DTN article stated that, “‘We pretty much know where the issues are,’ Stabenow said in a meeting with agriculture reporters on Tuesday. ‘We have actually a tremendous amount of consensus around a majority of the bill.’

“Stabenow plans to go title-by-title through the legislation to pass it next week and doesn’t expect a lot of disputes. ‘I don’t anticipate amendments on every title,’ Stabenow said. ‘Most of the issues have been worked out.’

“Roberts said members of the committee would like to get a bill written next week. Not everything is ironed out yet, he said. ‘We know that the Senate has to move. We know that 2013 is not going to present a better situation from a fiscal standpoint, from a (Congressional Budget Office) score.’”

Mr. Clayton explained that, “The proposed commodity programs have changed since last fall’s proposal, but the Senate Agriculture Committee plans to continue pushing for $23 billion in cuts. Several senators have introduced competing proposals around commodity programs.”

“[House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla.] faces challenges in the House that don’t affect the Senate markup. In particular, the House Budget Committee is pushing for steeper, more immediate cuts, particularly in nutrition programs,” the DTN article said.

“Lucas downplayed Wednesday’s budget-reconciliation markup by his committee to show $33 billion to $34 billion in savings over 10 years by cuts largely to nutrition programs. Lucas and [House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D., Minn.)] both dismissed the relevance of the legislation.”


Writing yesterday at the DTN Ag Policy Blog, Mr. Clayton indicated that, “The House Agriculture Committee has to go through the exercise on Wednesday of budget reconciliation. House Ag members are going to send a letter to the House Budget Committee explaining how they will cut more than $33 billion from programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“In an interview with DTN’s Jerry Hagstrom on Friday, House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he believes Republicans on the committee will attempt to cut as much as $33 billion from the food stamp program over 10 years during a markup on reconciliation instructions Wednesday, but said he will advise Democrats on the committee not to take that exercise seriously because the House budget resolution will not become law.

“‘This isn’t going to mean anything anyway,’ Peterson told Hagstrom, adding that he planned to advise his Democratic members early this week to ‘just vote against it’ and ‘not cause any trouble,’ so that the reconciliation exercise ‘will not haunt us when we do the actual bill.’”

With this background in mind, Bloomberg writer Brian Faler reported yesterday that, “House Republicans are taking aim at food stamps, calling for $34 billion in cuts over the next decade and setting up a fresh election-year battle over the federal budget deficit.”

“House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas said the plan is designed to squeeze inefficiencies out of the food-stamp program, which is projected to cost taxpayers about $80 billion this year.

“‘It’s basically closing loopholes; it’s tightening things up; it’s reflecting the budgetary times we’re in,’ said Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican.”

Mr. Faler added that, “Democrats said such cuts would hurt millions of poor Americans. ‘We’re literally going to take it out of the mouths of babes,’ said Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat. ‘It’s outrageous.’”

The Bloomberg article noted that, “The Republicans’ plan, which the chamber’s Agriculture Committee is set to take up today, would end a $20 a month increase in benefits provided in the administration’s economic stimulus plan. It also would clamp down on what Republicans call abuses by state governments of the program’s eligibility rules, which they say have allowed many undeserving people to receive benefits.

“‘All we’re simply saying is: ‘You need to qualify for what you receive,’’ Lucas said.”

The AP reported today that, “Wednesday’s measure before the Agriculture panel would reduce the food stamp monthly benefit for a family of four by almost $60, repealing increases that were enacted three years ago as part of Obama’s economic stimulus. The changes would also force up to 3 million people out of the program by tightening eligibility rules, the administration estimates.

“The food stamp cuts would total $8 billion over the coming year and $34 billion over a decade. The program has been expanded greatly over the past few years — enrollment tops 46 million nationwide, up from about 33 million in 2009 — and now costs about $80 billion a year. The average monthly benefit for a family of four is about $500, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research and advocacy group.”

Meanwhile, a news release yesterday from the Food Research and Action Center stated that, “As the House Agriculture Committee prepares this week to mark up a budget reconciliation measure that threatens large cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), a new analysis (pdf) by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) finds that food hardship is as prevalent in the mostly rural districts of members of the House Agriculture Committee as it is in the rest of the nation.”

Also on the nutrition issue, Gina Kolata reported in today’s New York Times that, “It has become an article of faith among some policy makers and advocates, including Michelle Obama, that poor urban neighborhoods are food deserts, bereft of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“But two new studies have found something unexpected. Such neighborhoods not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too. And there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.

“Within a couple of miles of almost any urban neighborhood, ‘you can get basically any type of food,’ said Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation, lead author of one of the studies. ‘Maybe we should call it a food swamp rather than a desert,’ he said.”

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Weise reported yesterday at USA Today Online that, “A coalition of groups sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration Tuesday opposing a proposal by manufacturers to call high-fructose corn syrup ‘corn sugar’ instead. The coalition says consumers are against the name change by 100-to-1.

“The ubiquitous sweetener has a bad rap in some circles, and the groups say the new name is just a ploy to confuse consumers who want to avoid it.

“The Corn Refiners Association petitioned the FDA in 2010 to allow ‘corn sugar’ as an alternate name to high-fructose corn syrup in mandatory ingredient lists on food packages. The petition said ‘many consumers are confused and misled by the ingredient name’ and mistakenly believe high fructose corn syrup is high in fructose compared with other sweeteners such as sugar, honey and fruit juice concentrates.”

Separately yesterday, a news release from the USDA indicated that, “Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced today that USDA will be investing in farm to school programs nationwide to help eligible schools improve the health and wellbeing of their students and connect with local agricultural producers.”

news release yesterday from Rep. Chellie Pingree (D., Maine) added that, “[Rep. Pingree] said a new grant program announced today could help Maine school districts improve access to local foods. The USDA’s Farm to School Program will provide grants in the $20,000-$100,000 range to help schools create school gardens and create other programs that bring local foods to students.

“‘This is going to help students connect with local agriculture, whether it’s by planting a garden on school grounds or taking a trip to a local farm,’ Pingreesaid. ‘When kids have a closer relationship with local farming they have a healthier relationship with food. It’s good for their health, it’s good for their performance in school and it helps the local economy.’”

In news focusing on conservation issues, Dan Piller reported yesterday at the Des Moines Register’s Green Fields Blog that, “Federal conservation officials will conduct a statewide conservation compliance review next Month using aerial photography, said Richard Sims, state conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Des Moines.

“After piloting a similar project last year in western Iowa, NRCS officials expanded the project to all tracts randomly selected for annual conservation compliance reviews across most of the state.

“Under the current Farm Bill conservation compliance is a requirement to receive federal direct payments. The new Farm Bill is considered likely to scrap direct payments in favor of stronger revenue and disaster insurance, but a conservation compliance lever has not been decided.”

On the issue of conservation compliance, more than a dozen organizations recently sent a letter to Senate and House Agriculture Committee leadership, which stated in part that, “As you renew food and farm policy, we urge you to renew our conservation compact with farmers by linking conservation compliance to all income support programs, including premium subsidies for crop and revenue insurance.”

Agricultural Economy

Dan Piller reported yesterday at the Green Fields Blog (Des Moines Register) that, “The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday said that 17 percent of the U.S. corn crop has been planted as of Sunday, well ahead of the normal 5 percent pace by this date.”

Budget Issues

Pete Kasperowicz reported yesterday at The Hill’s Floor Action Blog that, “The House on Tuesday afternoon approved a rule deeming that the House Republican budget approved last month as being passed by both the House and Senate.

“Members approved the rule, H.Res. 614, by a mostly party-line vote of 228-184, after a contentious debate in which Democrats accused Republicans of trying to force the budget from Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) onto both the House and the Senate.”

Meanwhile, Jonathan Weisman reported in today’s New York Times that, “The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee said on Tuesday that he would introduce the blueprint of President Obama’s bipartisan deficit reduction panel to his committee as the starting point for negotiations over a long-term debt plan.

“But the committee chairman, Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota, made it clear that he would not push the committee to vote on amendments to the plan from the Bowles-Simpson commission or on a final version until a bipartisan consensus was reached.

“‘It’s unlikely we will reach agreement until after the election,’ he said. ‘That’s just reality.’”

The Times article added that, “Mr. Conrad’s announcement surprised Republicans and Democrats, who were expecting him to produce a Democratic budget that, if passed by the committee, would have been the first detailed deficit reduction plan in three years. Mr. Conrad said that committee Democrats had tried to produce a marker for the budget debate, but that he had decided to fall back on his original plan, the Bowles-Simpson blueprint, named after the chairmen of the 2010 commission, the Democrat Erskine B. Bowles and the Republican Alan K. Simpson.”

Mike Lillis reported yesterday at The Hill Online that, “[House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)] suggested the issue [a Bowles-Simpson like grand bargain on the deficit] could resurface this year, warning of ‘a fiscal storm’ in the post-election lame duck session, when Congress will have to decide if it wants to extend – and how to pay for – a long list of expiring benefits, including the Bush-era tax cuts, the payroll tax holiday, emergency unemployment insurance and the pay hike for doctors who treat Medicare patients.”

Oil- Gas Prices

Steven Mufson reported in today’s Washington Post that, “President Obama proposed measures Tuesday to step up oversight of energy markets and boost by tenfold the penalties for market manipulation, in an effort to blunt political pressure over the 20 percent increase in gasoline prices since the beginning of the year.

“The new measures would, with congressional approval, provide an additional $52 million to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, boost civil and criminal penalties from $1 million per violation to $10 million a day for violations and give the CFTC greater power to set margin requirements that would force traders to provide more cash and reduce leverage when buying contracts.”

The Washington Post editorial board noted on this development today that, “No one should imagine that this will help much at the pump, no matter how much the White House talks of the urgent imperative to protect vulnerable consumers. America, after all, has been down the blame-price-manipulators road before. In 2006, President Bush ordered an investigation into gas-price gouging that had trouble finding even credible complaints of price manipulation. In 2008, the CFTC found that speculation wasn’t systematically driving gas-price increases.

“Recent history shows that gas prices over time depend on a range of factors, predominantly supply and demand fundamentals, that the U.S. government can’t easily control. And even if bona fide Wall Street manipulation were a primary force moving prices, The Post’s Brad Plumer points out, the United States alone can’t police the world market. As the president has said, the real answer is not to give voters hope in false solutions — which Mr. Obama’s rhetoric Tuesday can’t help but do — but to slowly but surely get America off oil.”

And Blake Clayton penned a recent article at Foreign Affairs Magazine Online titled, “In Defense of Oil Speculators: Don’t Blame Wall Street for High Gas Prices.”

Ben Protess reported in today’s New York Times that, “As federal regulators put the finishing touches on an overhaul of the $700 trillion derivatives market, a major provision has been tempered in the face of industry pressure.

“On Wednesday, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission are expected to approve a rule that would exempt broad swaths of energy companies, hedge funds and banks from oversight. Firms would not face scrutiny if they annually arrange less than $8 billion worth of swaps, the derivative contracts tied to interest rates and commodities like oil and gas.”

Mike Christensen
By Mike Christensen April 18, 2012