Negotiators in the Senate and House of Representatives finally convened Wednesday to begin resolving differences in the long-overdue farm bill.
The 41-member Farm Bill Conference Committee will now work to bridge huge divides between the Senate and House’s versions of what the policy should look like.
Among the hottest topics is cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.
The Republican-controlled House passed a bill that would cut food stamps by $39 billion out of a projected $800 billion over 10 years. In addition, the House SNAP provision would require able-bodied adults without children to work or volunteer for 20 hours a week to receive federal assistance.
The Democratic-held Senate’s farm bill also would cut food stamps, but by $4.5 billion over a decade, and the Senate plan wouldn’t add work requirements.
Many worry the differences over food stamps could continue jeopardizing passage of a bill that sets farm policy and covers conservation programs, insurance and farm subsidy programs.
But Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who helped piece together the Senate’s version of the farm bill and is also sitting on Farm Bill Conference Committee, is optimistic it will be passed in the next two months, and recently took time out of his schedule to talk with The Fence Post about his optimism.
In addition to the food stamp controversy, there are some lesser disputes, and if the conference committee fails to produce something for the House and Senate to vote on by the end of the year, consumers might feel the impact. Dairy supports are set to expire, meaning the cost of milk could jump significantly.
It’s been a tough go passing a new the farm bill, which was authorized in 2008 and expired last year.
Congress extended it through September, hoping to buy more time to reach a deal.
But a deal wasn’t made, and that extension expired, and some of the farm bill’s programs will do the same in the upcoming months — which is why Sen. Bennet, among many, many others are more than eager to pass a new farm bill.
Below are portions of the recent conversation with Sen. Bennet:
1. Overall, what was tone of the Farm Bill Conference Committee meetings this week as discussions began?
A. It was very optimistic — both in the prediction to pass a farm bill before the end of the year, and also the ability to come together to compromise where it’s needed.
We’re at a point now where a lot of people are frustrated, but eager to get this done.
There weren’t really any new issues or disagreements brought to the table. No new issues ... it’s mainly just the same issues that need to be resolved ... so that’s good.
2. With more and more time passing without a new farm bill, what’s the biggest concern you’re hearing from producers in Colorado?
A. Their biggest concern is just getting a new five-year farm bill passed and in place — just having the certainty of it, knowing the rules of the industry for the next five years.
And they’re wanting to see some changes. Colorado farmers basically wrote the conservation title of the farm bill ... and had a major say in a lot of other areas, like cutting direct payments and instead strengthening the crop insurance programs. So these are programs and changes that work for them, and ones they want to see in place soon.
3. You helped pass the Senate’s version of the bill, but are there any parts of the House bill that you like better?
A. To be quite honest, I like the House’s version of the dairy programs better than what the Senate version has in it. Colorado’s dairy industry, in addition to supplying local markets, depends heavily on exports. The House’s version has a price support program that’s better suited for producers who export, while the Senate’s farm bill ... pieced together by lawmakers from state’s where milk producers mainly supply local markets ... doesn’t address the needs of milk exporters. I’d really like to get some of the House’s language into the final version of the dairy policy.
4. Where else do you think the Senate needs to compromise with the House in farm bill talks as they move forward?
A. There’s obviously going to be more conversation on food assistance programs, and while we don’t want to see spending cuts go as deep as the House wants, maybe we can discuss more ways of preventing waste and abuse of those programs.
5. With farm bill discussions having now started back up, what do you feel is a realistic time frame of getting a new farm bill passed?
A. I’m confident we can get this done before the end of the year. We, the Senate, have passed our version of a farm bill — twice. It was a bipartisan effort — the only deficit-reducing measure passed in a bipartisan manner.
And I see the farm bill getting folded into the larger deficit-reduction discussions toward the end of the year, because of the cuts we’re making in the farm bill. That has to be passed by the end of the year, and that gives me hope that the new farm bill can pass at that time as well.
I know that was the case last year, when we passed an extension at the last minute as part of our spending cuts.
I’m hoping we don’t push it to the last minute again, and can get this done.
I’m hoping we don’t have that idiocy again. ❖