House-Senate farm bill conference in holding pattern
by Jay Sjerven
WASHINGTON — A Senate-House conference on the farm bill may not be established before the August congressional recess, said Representative Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture. The timing seemed to hinge on how quickly the House will be able to draft, debate and act on a separate bill to reform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The intent seemed to be to have the conference committee, when it is established, consider the separate House nutrition bill as well as the House and Senate versions of the farm bill.
“It would be difficult for me to move for a formal conference unless we address the nutrition issue,” Mr. Lucas said. “I would like to have something before we go home for August. I don’t know if that is humanly possible, but I am trying. Through the course of two votes and two debates there has been some solidifying of positions, so I have less flexibility than I had before.”
Mr. Lucas and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia established a working group to begin working on a SNAP reform bill.
The original FARRM bill called for $20.5 billion in cuts to SNAP over 10 years compared with proposed spending reductions totaling around $4 billion as contained in the Senate farm bill, the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act.
With the defeat of the original FARRM bill, many conservative members of the House Republican caucus were expected to promote even larger cuts to SNAP in a separate nutrition bill, pointing to the House-passed budget that called for a $135 million cut in SNAP over 10 years.
In addition to the future of SNAP, the conference committee, when constituted, will have to consider several other differences between the Senate and House bills with regard to farm programs and other measures including the repeal of “permanent law” underlying federal commodity programs as called for in the House “farm-only bill” and an amendment that may slow implementation of the F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization Act.
The revised FARRM act would repeal provisions of the 1938 Agricultural Adjustment Act and the 1949 Agriculture Act that established federal commodity support programs. The commodity titles of each farm bill since the 1949 act have been amendments to permanent law as contained in those foundational farm acts. By repealing permanent law underlying the federal farm programs, the threat of reverting to the outdated farm policies should a current farm act expire would be removed. But Democrats were critical of the attempt to remove permanent law.
Representative Colin Peterson of Minnesota, ranking member on the House agriculture committee, when opposing passage of the revised FARRM bill, explained on the House floor, “In every farm bill, there are things some people like and things some people don’t. The beauty of the ’38 and ’49 permanent laws is that it forces both groups to work together on a new farm bill, because no one really wants to back to the old commodity programs.
“If you make the new farm safety net programs the new permanent law, then those who got a better result in the commodity title this time have no incentive to work on a new bill,” Mr. Peterson said. “It will make it more difficult to make changes, improvements or reforms that over time we discover are needed.”
The revised House FARRM bill also contains an amendment proposed by Representative Dan Benishek of Michigan that would prevent the Secretary of Health and Human Services from enforcing any regulations promulgated under the F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization Act until the F.D.A. publishes in the Federal Register scientific and economic analyses of their effects on producers, agricultural businesses of a variety of sizes, and small and mid-size value-added food processors.
An aide to Mr. Benishek said the aim of the amendment was to protect Michigan farmers, primarily fruit tree farmers, from “burdensome” regulations.
Mr. Benishek in May introduced the Stopping Costly Regulations Against Produce (SCRAP) act, which inspired his amendment. SCRAP would have defunded an F.D.A. proposed rule for growing, harvesting, packing and holding fresh produce on domestic and foreign farms. In introducing SCRAP in May, Mr. Benishek said, “Our farmers work hard every day to deliver quality products to our table. The last thing they need is federal bureaucrats making their jobs more expensive and more complicated. We need these guys in Washington to start using some common sense and listen to our farmers instead of just passing tons of new costly regulations.”
Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs at the Center for Food Safety and Nutrition, said of the amendment, “This basically would slow the wheels of F.S.M.A. implementation by allowing another roadblock.” Mr. O’Neil said it was hoped the amendment would be stripped from the bill during a Senate-House conference.