In farming terms, it’s as if the cows are coming home.
House and Senate negotiators began long-delayed public talks Wednesday in hopes of striking a deal on a new farm bill by the end of the year amid worries that a bipartisan agreement may be impossible in the current political environment.
More than three dozen members of House and Senate agriculture committees gathered in an ornate House committee room to lament about years of political fighting that have prevented Congress from enacting broad farm legislation — which encompasses agriculture, energy and global trade and affects an estimated 16 million jobs and more than 40 million needy Americans.
“Let’s not take years to get it done,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) said at the start of the hearing.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) called the gathering “refreshing” and said the process could eventually “demonstrate to colleagues in both chambers that we can truly govern together.”
The House and the Senate have passed separate farm bills that would eliminate direct subsidy payments to farmers, make changes to crop insurance and other commodity programs, provide disaster assistance to farmers and write new rules on food labeling. But the two chambers differ sharply on how much money the federal government should spend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.
The Democratic-run Senate passed a bipartisan measure in June that would cut about $4 billion in SNAP funding mostly by making administrative changes. But the GOP-controlled House approved slashing almost $40 billion in food stamp money over the next decade by rewriting eligibility rules for beneficiaries.
“I am willing to be flexible; I am willing to compromise,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a liberal supporter of the food program. “I will not support a farm bill that makes hunger worse.”
Negotiators have until Jan. 1 to reach a deal before some agricultural policies revert to laws passed in the 1930s and 1940s, a step that would cause the wholesale price of milk to double.
Some lawmakers and aides privately say that the farm bill, and its potential to save tens of billions of dollars, is likely to get merged into a broader spending plan that must be passed by Jan. 15 in order to keep the government open. Lawmakers gathered in the U.S. Capitol Wednesday to start drafting that potential new budget agreement.
But the House is scheduled to be in recess next week, leaving few legislative days to reach a deal on the farm bill before year’s end. Aides couldn’t say Wednesday when the conferees will meet again.
Negotiators will need to strike an agreement that can muster sufficient support in the sharply-divided House and Senate. The process could prove especially difficult in the House, where GOP members generally insist that any bill brought up for a vote must be supported by a majority of Republicans.
Once considered must-pass legislation, the farm bill’s clout has suffered in recent years amid the declining influence of rural America. But it remains one of the few opportunities for lawmakers to brag about their states’ agricultural prowess and to deliver on specific regional concerns.
“Minnesota is number one in turkeys. We’re looking forward to Thanksgiving,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) joked during the meeting.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) touted his district’s agricultural productivity while Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) noted the output of red raspberries from her state. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said he’s seeking stronger forest conservation rules to manage trees killed by beetles in Montana.
And Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) warned that using the bill to classify lesser prairie chickens as an endangered species would adversely affect farming in several states.
“God bless the lesser prairie chicken,” Roberts said.