Conaway intends to ‘measure requirements’ for new farm bill
At a hearing on the rural economy to launch the debate on the next farm bill, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, said he intends to measure what farmers need before looking at budget cuts — the opposite of what lawmakers did when writing the 2014 farm bill.
At the same hearing, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he is frustrated by the difficulty of writing a dairy program that farmers will accept.
The hearing was held so that five economists, starting with Agriculture Department Chief Economist Robert Johansson, could deliver testimony on the state of the rural economy. The economists mostly said the same thing they have been saying at farm group meetings this winter: The farm economy has gone downhill, but the situation is not bad enough to be called a crisis as it was in the 1980s. The economists said, however, that the trends are going further downward.
The 2014 farm bill expires on Sept. 30, 2018. Conaway said Feb. 15 he is determined to finish the next bill before the 2014 bill expires, and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who is holding a hearing Feb. 23 in Manhattan, Kan., has said the same thing.
In his opening statement, Conaway made it clear he believes Congress will write the next farm bill in bad times and that Congress needs to think about the needs of rural America before talking about budget cuts.
Noting that the current farm bill has resulted in much bigger savings than the $23 billion Congress pledged to save when it wrote the 2014 bill, Conaway said. “Because we were asked during the last farm bill — when times were good — to cut twice before measuring once, in the upcoming farm bill debate we will measure our requirements first and then determine what kind of a budget we will need to meet these needs.”
That is also an approach that former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recommended when he noted that over the eight years he was secretary the budget was flat and the USDA staff got smaller.
Conaway also seemed annoyed that the 2014 farm bill did not completely follow the approach that then-House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., recommended, but made concessions to the Senate.
“Chairman Lucas’ strong admonition during the last farm bill debate that a safety net is supposed to be there to help farmers in bad times — not in good times — is one that Congress might better take to heart this go-around,” Conaway said.
“Every hole in the current safety net that now requires mending is the result of our not fully heeding that wisdom. Had we followed his counsel more closely, I doubt that there would be anywhere near the current urgency in writing a new farm bill. That wisdom isn’t just from a guy who’s been around the block a few times in writing farm bills. It’s from a guy who actually farms and ranches.”
But when Lucas spoke, he took a different approach.
“The biggest miracle of all is that we are operating under the 2014 farm bill,” Lucas said.
“There were times we would not have had that bill,” Lucas added, saying he was worried that the 1938 and 1949 permanent laws would go into effect and would prove to be such a problem that Congress would just repeal them.
Lucas said that in recent years, capacity for increased production worldwide had been building, but a drought had delayed the need to deal with that. He reminded his colleagues — particularly freshmen — that he had learned in college of the inelasticity of demand for food: that when people don’t have food they will pay any amount to get it, but when they have had enough they won’t pay a penny more for food.
Lucas also said his colleagues would learn that there are members on the right who don’t want to spend any money on anybody and members on the left who don’t want to spend money on rural America.
Comparing the next farm bill to the 1996 bill that got rid of a lot of old commodity-specific programs in favor of Freedom to Farm or the 2014 bill that eliminated the direct payments program, Lucas said that going forward there is no “need to reinvent the wheel.”
The 2014 bill, he said, “is not perfect, but at least we have something to work from.”❖