By MATTHEW D. ERNST
WASHINGTON, D.C. — By unanimous consent late last Thursday, the Senate requested a conference committee with the House on the federal farm bill.
“We’ve got the House passing a farm bill, the Senate passing a farm bill, we’ve got to get to conference, get the disagreements worked out, get a bill to the President by September 30,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). “I think we’ll be able to do that.
“But right now, the uncertainty that’s out there – are we going to have a farm bill or not have a farm bill? – is probably the thing that bothers farmers the most.”
The Senate’s action authorizes the appointment of seven Democrats and five Republicans to the conference committee to meet with the House. While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.) is expected to complete the appointments quickly, uncertainty persists on when appointments for the conference committee will be made in the House.
It is yet unclear whether Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will appoint House members to the conference committee, or conferees, before the House passes a separate nutrition title. The House farm bill does not include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which accounts for the majority of spending in the current farm bill.
“The House bill not having the nutrition title is a rather different entity than we’ve had in recent times,” said agricultural economist and policy specialist Carl Zulauf of The Ohio State University. “The Senate leadership and the President have both said that they would not take up a farm bill that did not have a nutrition program in it.”
Zulauf made his comments in a webinar, “The Future of Farm Policy,” broadcast by Purdue University last week.
Many farm groups expressed their opposition to the House move to split the nutrition legislation from the farm bill. “The ‘marriage’ between nutrition and farm bill communities and our constituencies in developing and adopting comprehensive farm legislation has been an effective, balanced arrangement for decades that has worked to ensure all Americans and the nation benefits,” wrote American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman in a July 11 letter to the House.
In an apparent split with the American Farm Bureau Federation, North Dakota Farm Bureau (NDFB) supported the House version of the bill, which includes a provision pushed by Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) that releases crop insurance recipients from complying with certain conservation measures.
“We thank Congressman Cramer for his diligence on this issue and support the work he has done to get a bill which not only addresses our concerns about conservation compliance and crop insurance, but wetland mitigation and misunderstanding about where most of the monies in the farm bill are spent,” said NDFB President Doyle Johannes, in a statement.
Some farm state legislators, such as House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), have championed the House’s version as a “farm bill farm bill,” or a bill that deals with farm and rural issues while excluding food assistance programs.
That represents a change from past farm bills, which combined nutrition and farm programs through alliances between urban and farm state lawmakers. Zulauf said any decision to separate nutrition and farm programs has implications beyond this year.
“Depending on what decision you make this farm bill, it may well dramatically affect how the next farm bill is done: who is involved, who are the policy actors,” he explained.
“These are key questions that the farm policy groups have to address, obviously the members of Congress have to address.”
Keep SNAP in farm bill
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) joined with more than 240 other groups last week in a statement calling for Congress to pass a farm bill that keeps SNAP and other nutrition programs intact.
“A full and fair farm bill must include farm, food and nutrition, conservation and rural economic development programs and commodity and crop insurance reforms,” read the statement. The signers represent a range of sustainable agriculture, conservation and hunger advocacy groups.
The statement calls for Congress to reject any cuts or changes to SNAP that would “increase hunger or reduce access to nutrition education for any of the 47 million Americans who currently rely on the program to meet basic food needs.”
In addition, the groups also call for full funding for farm conservation programs, reform to farm commodity programs and “provisions to ensure that a comprehensive farm bill with all titles will be updated on a regular five-year basis as conditions in the food and farm system change.”
The number of SNAP recipients grew from 26.3 million in 2007 to 40.3 million in 2010, according to the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS). That resulted in increased spending for the program, and some House Republicans have targeted SNAP to decrease the amount of overall government spending.
A USDA analysis, highlighted on the ERS website last week, suggests SNAP spending rose in line with the national unemployment rate. “At a time when the unemployment rate increased from 4.5 percent in 2007 to 9.8 percent in 2010, the number of Americans receiving SNAP benefits grew from an average of 26.3 million in 2007 to 40.3 million in 2010,” reported ERS.
“However, when the increase in SNAP participants is adjusted for the increase in the unemployment rate, the caseload increased by 2.7 million participants per 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate, which is similar to the previous two economic declines.”