Farm bill could help federal officials avoid fiscal cliff

A farm bill awaiting congressional action is being viewed more and more as a partial solution to the federal government’s debt and budget crisis.

The farm bill and impending “fiscal cliff” are being linked because new federal farm policy could produce billions of dollars in savings.

“There is a growing recognition that this could be part of the puzzle,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, the North Dakota Democrat who leads the Senate Budget Committee and is a key player in fiscal cliff negotiations.

Added U.S. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican: “I think the farm bill can contribute to solving the fiscal cliff because it can achieve savings.”

Washington insiders say the farm bill, which really is 80 percent nutrition programs such as food stamps, could save $23 billion to $50 billion over the next decade. While the government faces a “fiscal cliff” problem topping $2 trillion, many farm-state legislators say the farm bill would be a good down payment.

Decisions are being made in secret by congressional leaders and the White House.

“It’s hard to know just what is going on,” said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson of western Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. “From what I can tell from usually reliable sources high up in their (Republican) leadership, they are in the process right now deciding how to handle this. I think they want to get this done, but they haven’t figured out how to do it.”

The Democratic-controlled Senate passed its version of a new five-year farm bill earlier this year. However, the Republican House leadership did not bring its bill up, citing lack of votes.

“We have the votes,” Peterson rebutted. “I think we had the votes before the election. There is not a problem here other than these guys won’t put it on the floor.”

Republicans do not like the nutrition funding part of the bill, which accounts for 80 percent of farm bill spending. Much of the savings already is tagged to come out of food stamps and related programs, but some would be in ag cuts, too.

Peterson said the Senate bill and the one awaiting House action are similar enough that they should not be hard to merge and go back to the House and Senate for final action.

The bill’s agriculture highlight is putting more emphasis on programs such as insurance that pays farmers in case of a crop loss. Subsidies paid directly to farmers would play a much less important role than in previous years.

Thune said he expects the bill to reach President Barack Obama’s desk, but could not promise it would happen before current farm law expires Dec. 31.

“I would strongly prefer that a normal farm bill process put in place a five-year bill, hopefully by the end of this year,” Thune said. “I am very concerned about punting the farm bill to next year.”

Fiscal cliff work is expected to continue into next year.

There has been talk about extending current law, which farm-state lawmakers generally do not like because it might lead to long delays in anything new passing.

Peterson said three options are open for the farm bill: pass the House version and go into a conference committee with the Senate, the House could pass the Senate version or farm provisions could be incorporated into the budget bill.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he does not think Congress should wait. “We should do that right now.”

Hoeven said he is trying to get House leaders to take it up soon during the lame duck session that began Tuesday.

Peterson is flexible on farm bill funding levels. The bill awaiting a House vote would cut $17 billion from nutrition programs, but he has no problem with it going up to $26 billion.

“There will be amendments,” Peterson promised, such as one that failed in committee to trim $33 billion from nutrition programs. “I’m good with whatever happens.”

One reason Peterson is optimistic about Republicans allowing a farm bill vote is polls show more than half of farmers blame them for failure to act. Republicans usually do well in farm country.

Farmers and others who benefit from the farm bill will sacrifice, Peterson said.

“Even though we are making major changes in addressing farm policy,” he said, “we still won’t get any credit for it because we never do.”

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