Farm bill conferee optimistic
By Eric Mortenson
With cracks showing in the partisan stagnation gripping Congress, U.S. Rep Kurt Schrader is cautiously optimistic an updated farm bill will be among the pieces of legislation that emerge in the coming weeks.
Schrader, a Democrat who represents Oregon’s fifth district, was appointed to a committee that will attempt to reconcile wildly different farm bill versions passed by the House and Senate. House leadership held off appointing a conference committee for weeks, but relented last Friday and appointed 17 Republicans and 12 Democrats. Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Democrat representing Washington’s first district, also was appointed. Both are members of the House Committee on Agriculture.
The previous five-year farm bill expired Sept. 30, leaving future funding for food stamps, crop subsidies, agriculture research, farm loans and other programs in doubt. The Oregon Farm Bureau Federation and others say the impact won’t be apparent immediately, because previously approved funding carries over past the bill’s expiration date, but severe complications could arise if the bill isn’t renewed.
“It has us all worried,” said Gail Greenman, the state federation’s director of national affairs.
Food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is the biggest part of the farm bill — about $80 billion a year — and the biggest sticking point in its passage this year. The Senate in May passed a version that cut an average of $400 million a year from the SNAP program. But the House narrowly approved a version that cut an average of $4 billion a year and earned a veto threat from President Obama.
The House then passed separate nutrition and agriculture sections of the bill.
Schrader said the House’s version of the farm bill was “hijacked on the House floor by Tea Party radicals.” He said most representatives from both parties want to find a compromise, but Speaker of the House John Boehner must regain control of his party’s members.
“If the speaker allows the Senate and House conferees to do the job they’re appointed to do, we can get it done,” he said. “If it becomes a Tea Party issue, we’re doomed.
“This is a big deal,” he said. “It will ripple through the farm economy after the first of year.”
Schrader acknowledged that crop subsidies, milk supports and SNAP will be tough issues to reconcile.
DelBene, the Washington representative, called the decision to name House conferees and begin talks with the Senate a “significant step forward.”
In a prepared statement, DelBene said the original farm bill work done by the House agriculture committee was bipartisan and cooperative.
“I am hopeful that we can continue this positive working relationship in the conference committee and deliver a strong farm bill that’s good for our nation’s farmers, families and food supply,” she said.
Greenman, of the Oregon Farm Bureau, said members strongly believe SNAP funding should continue to be included in the farm bill, because it gets the attention of urban and suburban constituencies who might otherwise not might be interested in agricultural issues.
The organization supports eliminating direct payments, which have been criticized because they often go to non-farmers. Greenman said members agreed the “writing was on the wall” about the program. Oregon supports conservation and energy grants that are typically included in the bill, and makes use of specialty crop block grants, she said.