By JERRY HAGSTROM
For the Capital Press
Leaders of the Senate and House agriculture committees and their staffs are expected to work through the weekend to try to complete a farm bill proposal for the super committee in charge of deficit reduction by Nov. 1, aides told Capital Press in a series of interviews this week.
The super committee is charged with producing a plan by Thanksgiving that reduces spending by $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
The leaders offered the committee $23 billion in cuts in exchange for the chance to submit by Nov. 1 a five-year farm bill including those cuts that would be incorporated into the committee's proposal.
Because of the super committee's deadline, the ag leaders are writing the next farm bill on an expedited schedule without the public hearings and markup sessions. Few details have emerged.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the new program amounts to real reform based on risk management.
"We are undertaking a monumental shift in federal farm policy -- one that saves billions of taxpayer dollars by ending payments to farmers who don't need them," Stabenow said in an email. "U.S. farm policy should be based on risk management and only help farmers when they are in distress, facing events such as natural disasters or sudden drops in price.," Stabenow said.
The guiding factor in writing the bill is how to allow for a $23 billion cut over 10 years while still maintaining viable programs, committee aides said.
In interviews given on the condition of anonymity, the aides revealed some of the details of what has been happening in recent weeks as they have tried to write a new, cheaper farm bill while critics have questioned whether there needs to be a farm bill at all when farmers are so prosperous.
"We've looked for a way to do this that is not just a numbers game," one aide said. "We try to deal with consolidating programs, finding savings. An across-the-board cut doesn't make a lot of sense."
Staffers are trying to write a crop program that will protect farmers from shallow losses and disasters while encouraging them to maintain current levels of crop insurance.
The crop insurance industry and the American Farm Bureau Federation have expressed concerns that the proposal under consideration might lead to cuts in crop insurance purchases, but staffers are trying to avoid that outcome while still offering farmers additional protection for losses not covered by crop insurance.
The issue of a farmer's declining actual production history and how that affects potential crop insurance benefits will probably have to be handled within the crop insurance program, not in the "shallow loss" program. Payment limits would probably be dealt with "in the design of the program," one aide said.
The agriculture leaders are "searching for some common ground, but the biggest challenge is writing a program that fits across all geographic areas," one aide said. "We have to do some crop specific things. Cotton doesn't use buy up in crop insurance. We might do crop specific tweaks."
But the aide added, "Even though time is short, I feel confident that minority and majority are really working to come up with something everybody can live with."
Of concerns that crop insurance is becoming expensive to the farmer and to the government, one aide said that the reality is "with prices being what they are, you are insuring a much more valuable crop."
The way that Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, divided up the cuts in a conversation with reporters last week -- $15 billion from the commodity title, $4 billion each from conservation and nutrition -- added up, but one aide said it is still difficult to come up with a breakdown.
"Trying to share equal pain doesn't make sense," an aide said.
Making any cut in the nutrition programs is turning out to be difficult, the aide said.
"I wouldn't close the door on it, but the biggest struggle is that you are in an economy [in which] people say 'I have paid taxes all my life and now I need food stamps.' At the same time you want to make sure the funds are being used in the best manner."
One aide said it is hard to maintain the budget for agricultural research even though members and aides realize that research is vital to the future of U.S. agricultural and meeting a goal of feeding more people in the future.
A coalition of 1,200 universities, agriculture groups and businesses wrote congressional farm leaders this week urging them to at least maintain the current level of support for agricultural research in the bill. " For every $1 invested in publicly funded agricultural research, $20 in economic activity is generated," the groups said.
Although dairy processors and some senators have been critical of the dairy proposal that House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has proposed, "Peterson has really been leading the discussion on dairy," an aide said.
Sweetener users have been pushing for easing restrictions on sugar imports, but it's unlikely there will be many changes because the current program doesn't have a federal budget cost.
"It will be hard to make changes that don't cost money," an aide said.
On the conservation programs, the ideas proposed by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., are in the mix, an aide said, because "Lugar is a very respected voice."
The Lugar-Stutzman conservation proposal would reduce the size of the Conservation Reserve Program, which idles land, and consolidate programs on working lands, saving an estimated $11 billion over the next 10 years. The proposal lowers the maximum enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program from the current 32 million acres to a new cap of 24 million acres and phase in the new acreage cap over three years, with a cap of 30 million acres in fiscal year 2012, 26 million acres in fiscal year 2013, and 24 million acres in fiscal year 2014 and beyond.
The proposal would also eliminate the current separate structures of the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Grasslands Reserve Program, the Farm and Rand Lands Protection Program, and the Healthy Forest Reserve Program, and consolidate them into an easement benefits program with mandatory funding of $1 billion per year.
It would also eliminate the structures of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program and combine them into one working lands program with mandatory funding of $2.25 billion per year.