By DAVID ROGERS | 12/4/13 3:01 PM EST Updated: 12/5/13 10:24 AM EST
Farm bill negotiators broke major new ground toward a long-sought deal, even as a leading agriculture lobby urged rival commodity groups Wednesday to “close ranks” behind a final package this winter.
Staff were closeted still working out the details and much will depend on final scoring from the Congressional Budget Office. But both sides made important concessions in the course of an hourlong closed-door meeting Wednesday of the four top principals from the House and Senate Agriculture committees.
The House moved off its position that all commodity subsidies be a function of a farmer’s planted acres. The Senate agreed to greater food stamp savings — albeit still far short of the $40 billion in 10 years cuts approved by the House in September.
“We’re making great progress, across the board we’re trying to bring it all together,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told reporters. “We are coming closer in every part of the bill.”
Her counterpart, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) was cautious but decidedly more upbeat than he had been 24 hours before. “We made great progress. We have more progress to make,” Lucas said. “Let us keep working.”
Neither Lucas nor Stabenow discussed any details, but the format of Wednesday’s meeting gave Stabenow the opportunity to present what was described as a five-page response to proposals previously made by Lucas. The fact that both chairs came out smiling was a healthy sign, and after weeks of floundering there was genuine hope that the pieces of a deal could be coming together.
Indeed, the framework for the commodity title appeared to be largely in place if the compromise holds regarding base vs. planted acres. In the case of the nutrition title, the Senate moved off what had been a rigid position of rejecting any savings beyond the $4 billion in its bill.
There are discussions too of a limited number of pilot programs to test new approaches to train unemployed food stamp recipients and move them into the workforce. But the largest new savings would come from a crackdown on what many see as an abusive practice by states called “heat-and-eat.”
Under this scheme, token amounts of low income fuel assistance — sometimes as little as $1 per year — are distributed to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients, thereby qualifying them for a standard utility deduction to leverage significantly higher food stamp benefits.
Virtually all of the $4 billion in SNAP savings in the Senate bill come from setting a minimum threshold requiring states to at least distribute $10 in such fuel aid to qualify for the utility allowance. The compromise now would set a still higher threshold of $20 as proposed by the House, and this could double the Senate’s savings.
Wednesday’s talks came as Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, sought to calm the waters, calling on the agriculture community to step back and let the negotiators do their work without having to field grenades thrown in by competing interests outside.
“It is time, once and for all, to unify behind a farm bill that works for all of American agriculture, including crop, livestock, and fruit and vegetable growers,” Stallman said. “The best way for us to do that is to trust those who have brought us this far.”
“We must move forward. It is time to let our leaders lead. The American Farm Bureau Federation will do what it can to help close ranks on any remaining issues — for the good of the whole of American agriculture, consumers, our hardworking farm and ranch families and the rural communities they support.”
Stallman cited no single lobby by name, but his statement reflects the concern among farm bill advocates that the bad blood among commodity groups has become an embarrassment and threat to completing a package this winter. POLITICO reported on this infighting this week, including a toughly worded Nov. 26 letter from the powerful corn and soybean lobbies, warning that they would oppose any final bill that does not address their trade concerns about the commodity title.
As major exporters, corn and soybeans fear they would be subject to complaints if future subsidies are tied to planted acres — which had been an important position in the House bill. They have proposed several alternatives to bridge the gap, but absent some agreement, their letter said they would oppose the final bill and seek a two-year extension of current law — running into the next Congress.
The new concessions Wednesday in the House-Senate talks change the complexion of this fight — and could mean a victory for corn and beans. But for the two lobbies to public embrace a two-year extension was widely seen as a shot at Lucas, whose tenure as House chairman runs out next year..
Danny Murphy, a Mississippi farmer and president of the American Soybean Association, insisted again Wednesday that no threat had ever been intended. Murphy said his preference is still a five-year bill but a five-year bill “without bad policy.” He said the whole notion of a two-year extension was to get past the 2014 elections, not past Lucas. “Chairman Lucas might very well be still there,” Murphy told POLITICO. “We intended no slight toward him.”
John Doggett, vice president for public policy and the National Corn Growers Association, echoed the sentiment. “We felt it was important for the conferees to know our position,” Doggett told POLITICO. “We in no way meant it as a threat. We meant it as an expression of our position.”