By Don Davis
President Barack Obama makes new federal farm policy his third highest congressional priority now that the federal shutdown is history, but that is no guarantee a farm bill will have easy sledding.
The bill is more complex than a combine filled with computers, global positioning system screens and equipment monitors. Like that combine, there are many parts that can fail.
“We have things to work out,” U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson said in an interview. “Are they insurmountable? No.”
The complexities begin with how the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate can work out differences in the food stamp program for poor Americans.
Food stamps and farm policy long have been married in farm bills to gain both rural and urban support. Republicans generally want the programs cut, while many Democrats want more spent on food stamps.
Discussions are going on behind the scenes about that and more farm-oriented issues. The five-year farm bill is attracting more interest than usual from congressional leaders, especially in the House.
One question that arises in light of the just-ended federal government shutdown is whether Tea Party Republicans who oppose many government programs, including farm spending, still have a fight left in them after losing efforts to limit health reform as part of a budget deal.
“Are they going to be more confrontational and take on the farm bill?” asked Peterson, who serves most of western Minnesota.
Beyond partisan politics, a key farm issue is dairy policy.
“I don’t know how to untangle this,” said Peterson, the top House Agriculture Committee Democrat and friend of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Despite their friendship, they differ on the dairy issue and given recent budget disputes, Peterson has had relatively little time to discuss it with the speaker.
Boehner supports a plan that would lead to cheap milk, something businesses such as candy makers want. However, Peterson said, to keep milk cheap government might have to buy up milk products.
“It is a weird deal,” Peterson said. “What he is supporting would potentially put the government on the hook for billions of dollars. What I am proposing would potentially put the farmers on the hook for that.”
Boehner wants a new farm bill, Peterson said.
“I don’t think he wants to kill the bill over dairy,” the western Minnesotan said. “And I don’t think he can.”
On the other hand, Boehner may not control Republicans.
House Republican Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia placed one of his supporters on the farm bill negotiating team, which begins talks with the Senate Oct. 28. Peterson fears the Cantor faction could derail the farm bill.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said that farm bill “is huge for North Dakota” and he wants politics erased from the issue.
“This had better be the end of shenanigans,” he said of the shutdown, adding that now attention should focus on issues such as farm policy.
“I pushed rather hard on leadership,” Cramer said, telling top Republicans that he does not want those outside of farming deciding farm policy, such as candy makers writing policy affecting sugar farmers.
Let those who know the issue make ag decisions, he said. The sense he got from House leaders, he added, is that is their plan.
Peterson said the biggest question is what House Republicans want done.
“Are they going to make demands on us?” Peterson asked. “I don’t know. It is unclear. I think there is a difference of feeling within the leadership on the Republican side.”
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she is optimistic about passing a farm bill. “There are a lot of people wanting to get it done.”
The Upper Midwest will represented in House-Senate farm bill negotiations by Reps. Peterson; Steve King, R-Iowa; Tim Walz, D-Minn.; and Kristi Noem, R-S.D.; and Sens. Klobuchar; John Hoeven, R-N.D.; and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.