Negotiators Reach Deal On Farm Bill

By Don Davis

Congressional negotiators agreed to a farm bill on Monday that they think finally will pass the House and Senate.

It is a compromise package that pleases neither side, with food stamp cuts and farm subsidies continuing.

“Compromise is rare in Washington these days but it’s what is needed to actually get things done,” U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said. “While it’s no secret that I do not support some of the final bill’s provisions, I believe my reservations are outweighed by the need to provide long-term certainty for agriculture and nutrition programs.”

Peterson said the process, which he started as Agriculture Committee chairman two years ago, has gone on “far too long.”

Farm-state lawmakers said that among the bill’s provisions are ones to:

— Repeal the direct payment program to farmers while maintaining other aid.

— Keep a sugar program much like in the past few years.

— Strengthen risk management tools such as crop insurance.

— Repeal outdated programs and consolidate duplicative ones, eliminating nearly 100 programs.

— Strengthen conservation efforts to protect land, water and wildlife.

— Maintain food assistance for families while addressing food stamp fraud and misuse.

— Help increase farm exports.

— Expand biofuel production.

— Provide livestock producer disaster assistance.

The agreement on a new five-year bill came after lawmakers spent weeks ironing out differences over food stamps, dairy price supports and other issues contained in earlier House and Senate legislation.

The House likely will take action before its Republican leadership leaves town late on Wednesday for a three-day policy retreat.

A vote in the Senate could come as early as next week. If both chambers pass the bill, it would go to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The White House last year threatened to veto any bill that contained deep cuts, advocated by House Republicans, to the food stamp program. Those cuts come in at less than $9 billion over a decade, well below the $40 billion advocated by House Republicans.

Food stamp savings “are reached without removing anyone” from the program, according to a statement from the offices of the four major farm bill negotiators, including Peterson.

Those in the Upper Midwest congressional delegation agreed that it is time for a bill to pass. They also agreed that it is past time to give farmers assurances of federal policies.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the farm bill is important for his state “so that our producers will have the confidence and tools they need to run their operations.”

Balance of the competing interests was important to U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

“I’m confident that this farm bill strikes the right balance to make sure a strong safety net will be provided to North Dakota’s diverse agricultural system, which leads the nation in the production of over 13 different commodities,” Heitkamp said.

“For too long, our farmers and ranchers have faced uncertainty because of delays in Washington.”

An early winter storm in South Dakota and southwest North Dakota, in which thousands of cattle died, gave an urgency to passing the bill, U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said.

“The hundreds of producers who lost cattle may soon be offered relief and certainty going forward,” she said. “At the same time, we’ve been able to maintain a strong crop insurance program, make it easier for the Forest Service to combat the pine beetle crisis, protect our native grasslands, support research and offer billions of dollars in savings to taxpayers.”

A member of the conference committee that reached the final deal, Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, said she was glad fellow committee members agreed with her efforts to provide more support for rural development projects, conservation programs, agricultural research, the Rural Energy for America program and other energy programs.

The bill “strengthens the crop insurance program, boosts our energy and conservation programs, reduces the deficit and gives our farmers and ranchers the certainty they need to grow and thrive,” Klobuchar said.

Besides the farm advances, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said the bill saves the federal government $23 billion over its five-year life.

Reuters news service contributed to this story.