Farm bill conferees complete public meeting
House and Senate conferees on the next farm bill held a public meeting today at which they made largely predictable and bland speeches.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who is chairing the conference, urged the 47 House and nine Senate members of the conference committee to keep their comments short, and they did. Roberts pointed out that both the House and Senate had votes scheduled in the early afternoon.
Roberts adjourned the hearing as scheduled at 12:30 p.m. without making any announcements about next steps.
Now that all members have had a chance to state their views, Roberts, Senate Agriculture ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., should be free to move forward with substantive negotiations to overcome the differences between the House and Senate bills.
Conaway said in a post-hearing statement, “Today my colleagues in the House and Senate highlighted the urgency in farm and ranch country and just how desperate times are as net farm income is slated to fall again this year. While I’m pleased with progress on the farm bill, we must pick up the pace. This will all come together quickly if all four principals are willing to make meaningful compromises. I have made it very clear that I am willing to do so. We still have a lot of work to do, but I believe we can get this done on time.”
Farm lobbyists and Senate aides have noted, however, that it was the House that was out of session for a month.
During the three-hour session, members stuck to positions they have already taken. Most House Republicans defended the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program House farm bill provisions that would limit eligibility and impose work requirements. Senate and House Democrats urged rejection of the House SNAP provision in favor of the Senate SNAP provisions that make less dramatic changes.
Politico reported today that Conaway has made a compromise offer on SNAP, but Conaway did not address that today in his prepared remarks.
Roberts noted in his opening statement that this is the eighth farm bill on which he has worked in the House and the Senate.
“The circumstances are always a bit different, but we all have a history of working together in a bipartisan, bicameral fashion to find solutions and to get farm bills done,” Roberts said. “If it was important then, it is even more so now.
“The goal, the responsibility, the absolute requirement is to provide farmers, ranchers, growers and everyone within America’s agriculture and food value chain certainty and predictability during these very difficult times. This is paramount to many other issues and concerns.
“Both the House and Senate recognize this need,” Roberts said. “Clearly, both have taken the steps to get us to this point today. We are very close to the finish line, but we still have a lot of work — a lot of compromise — that remains to be done.
“It is not an exaggeration to say our nation’s food and fiber production capability hangs in the balance with what we do here on this legislation. Time is of the essence. Let us work together to get this done.”
Stabenow said Congress can give farmers and ranchers “the certainty they need – if we work together. Chairman Roberts and I worked side by side on every part of our bill – from the commodity and conservation titles to the nutrition title.
“We have two basic safety nets in the farm bill: one for farmers and one for families. We know that the costs of the farmer safety net are going up because of drops in commodity prices, massive uncertainty on trade, and serious labor challenges.
“The good news is that the safety net for families, or SNAP, is working and costs are going down,” Stabenow said. “The Congressional Budget Office has said food assistance programs are saving $80 billion more than initially expected because the economy is getting better and unemployment is going down.
“Therefore, massive eligibility changes that would take away SNAP benefits for 2 million people and subject millions of moms with young children, seniors and others to unnecessary paperwork burdens make no sense.
“And, importantly, these cuts do not have support in the Senate – and do not even have strong consensus in the House.
“We also cannot go backwards on fundamental protections for our water, forests and wildlife. If we are serious about providing the certainty our farmers and families deserve and getting the farm bill done, we must avoid poison pill riders,” Stabenow concluded.
Conaway said there are “certainly areas of disagreement between the two chambers — disagreements that stretch far beyond the nutrition title and are plainly reflected in our respective versions of the farm bill. But the good news is that I have seen no disagreement that should prevent us from completing a strong farm bill on time. Even on SNAP, I have repeatedly stressed that we are willing and able to come to consensus with the Senate.”
Conaway thanked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for the Agriculture Department’s help with the bill, and he thanked the staffs of both committees.
“With that, Mr. Chairman, I pledge to you and all of my colleagues — and above all to farm and ranch country and rural America — that I am ready and willing to remain in Washington and work every day until this farm bill is enacted into law,” Conaway concluded.
Peterson said, “We have one goal: to get this farm bill done. Farmers are counting on it. We’ve all seen the statistics on the decline of the farm economy, on their struggles with regard to trade, the news of volatile weather, and the range of challenges they face.
“It makes no sense — and it doesn’t benefit those farmers one bit — to relitigate how we got here. It doesn’t get us any closer to our goal.
“We’re all here for the same reason: to deliver for the people who count on the programs within this bill. Those are farmers, they’re consumers, they’re people who care about renewable energy and research and supporting rural communities and conserving our natural resources. This bill tackles all of it, and I’m eager to hear your ideas as we move along in this process.
“But more than any one issue, I want a farm bill,” Peterson said. “I’m here to work and to get a conference report we can all sign, pass through our respective chambers and send to the president to be signed into law. I’ll remind our conferees that should be their goal as well. Nobody in this room is going to get everything he or she wants; this process is about compromise.”
Members spoke mostly to issues important to their districts.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and ranking member Elliot Engel, D-N.Y., both thanked the agriculture committee members for not rolling back the provisions in the 2014 farm bill that, as Royce put it, made monetization of feeding programs “a last resort” and continued to allow local procurement of food. They also praised provisions that would align deliveries of food for the McGovern-Dole international school feeding program with school schedules in the recipient countries and allow for local procurement for that program.