Turn on and Tune In, but Don't be a Dropout

It’s about that time, and the political junkies here in the home office are salivating at the prospect of full House Agriculture Committee consideration of the 2007 farm bill. Up until this point, the entire farm bill process has been a little dull, fairly predictable, and generally a snoozefest for those not obsessed with farm programs. But now we get to watch (and hopefully influence) members of the ag committee as they actually try to hammer out the real deal and send a farm bill to the floor.

A caveat: As you may recall, this was all supposed to happen the last week in June, but was delayed. So that could happen again. But at this point we certainly expect things to move forward. As of today, full committee meetings are scheduled for Tuesday starting at 1:00pm and Wednesday and Thursday starting at 10:00am. You can listen to the hearings here and see the schedule here.

The full committee process could go one of two ways. First, the chairman may be able to hold everyone together and pass a bill relatively quickly with little in the way of committee infighting. That would be quite a feat, and we don’t think it will happen. The second option is a series of knock-down fights over various parts of the farm bill. That is a much more likely outcome. Prior to full committee consideration, members have had very little freedom to implement their own ideas, mostly being forced to follow Chairman Peterson’s lead. The big reason for that is the very tight budget situation, and in the subcommittee process you cannot take money from programs that are under the jurisdiction of other subcommittees.

Now they can, and it could get ugly. Committee members will have their only chance to really get what they want before the bill hits the floor, where all 435 members will have a say. You can expect efforts to move money between programs and sections of the farm bill, despite repeated insistence from committee leaders that that won't fly. Here’s a list of hot issues that may be addressed:

Payment Limits: Right now, this is Topic A in the farm bill debate. Obviously we’ve written a great deal about this, and we are anxious to see what will happen. Will Jeff Fortenberry offer a Dorgan-Grassley-esque amendment in committee to close all the existing loopholes and cap farm program payments? It would be the mother of all fights within the committee. Will Collin Peterson propose real reform, as he has hinted he might? Or will Peterson propose phony half-reforms to try and look good? Will the Southerners, who have traditionally virulently opposed any effort at payment limitations, accept mild changes to head off real reform? If Fortenberry does offer an amendment, will a Democrat on the committee step up and cosponsor?

Conservation: One of the top goals of many groups working on the farm bill is increased funding for conservation. Peterson’s draft does a nice job of screwing the Conservation Security Program in order to increase spending on other conservation programs such as EQIP (that’s the one with the $450,000 limit and is often used to fund CAFO lagoon construction. Boos on both counts). Will amendments be offered to restore money for the CSP? If there is such an amendment, will it use the real money that has been stolen, or will it use imaginary reserve fund money?

Competition: The competition subcommittee passed an amendment banning mandatory arbitration clauses in livestock production contracts. Incredibly, this relatively mild (though still important) reform has excited considerable opposition, especially on the Republican side. Expect an amendment to strike this provision to be offered very quickly. We think it will be a very close vote.

Local Foods, etc. We expect various amendments to be offered to increase support for local foods, farmers markets, and the like. We might call them the “Michael Pollan” amendments. We like them. Finding real dollars is the challenge here, even though we’re probably not talking about billions of dollars. But in this budget environment, you’ve got to take from somebody else to fund what you like.

Organic and Specialty Crops: Word on the street is that Rep. Cardoza of California is hopping mad about the lack of real dollars for specialty crops (i.e. fruits and veggies). He would be the chair of the recently created Horticulture and Organic Agriculture subcommittee, a senior Democrat, and certain to be on the House-Senate farm bill conference committee way down the road. It would be in Peterson’s interest to keep him happy and right now he ain’t happy at all. Will he try to find real dollars (in this case, he wants billions), where would he find them, and if he can’t, will he refuse to back what Peterson wants? According to Congress Daily, he may go after traditional commodity program dollars. He could bring a lot of votes with him, especially once the bill moves out of committee and onto the floor.

Peanuts: Don't underestimate the power of the peanut. Peanut growers are not happy with the current proposal (unlike most other commodity groups, who have lined up behind Peterson's draft) , and they have a lot of representation on the committee. More than you would think. Trust us.

Crop Insurance: Rumors are flying that Peterson will propose taking mucho dollars from the crop insurance program to fund other priorities. The crop insurance program costs billions and has been highlighted as a boondoggle in the Washington Post Harvesting Cash series. If Peterson wants to get big dollars from the crop insurance program, can he overcome the political opposition and if he is successful will spreading those dollars around relieve some of the pressure for reform in other areas?

I’m sure there are more issues than I have listed here. If you have more ideas, stick them in the comments and I’ll see if I can dig up anything. Stay tuned, and we’ll be sure to have some action alerts coming.


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