House leader says farm bill probably will pass

Measure could be last farm bill Congress ever writes

by Peter Harriman

Argus Leaser

There’s a chance Congress could pass a new farm bill by the end of September, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas said here Friday.

If it passes, it probably will require farmers who want to buy federal crop insurance to be in compliance with conservation program requirements, he said.

And it might be the last farm bill of its kind Congress ever tries to write, Rep. Kristi Noem added. Comprehensive farm legislation that includes titles for crop subsidies, conservation programs, rural development and nutrition programs such as food stamps is so divisive in a highly partisan federal government that it might no longer be worth trying.

Noem and Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican, answered questions for an audience of about 70 Friday at the South Dakota State Fair.

Predictably, government gridlock was in for harsh criticism. The pair spent most of an hour tying it to the frustrating effort to pass a new farm bill to replace the 2008 law that expired last September but lives on through a one-year extension and still sets federal agriculture policy.

The Senate has passed such a bill, and just before the August congressional recess it appointed members to a conference committee to reconcile its legislation with whatever the House passes, Lucas said.

The Senate version saves $7 billion, Lucas said.

But there’s a whole prairie horizon of difference between the Senate effort and a powerful Republican bloc in the House that is holding out for a bill that saves $40 billion, including $20 billion from nutrition programs, such as food stamps, according to Lucas.

After Labor Day, the chairman said he hopes the House will pass a new farm bill that does not include nutrition programs, so Congress will deal with those separately.

But he and Noem emphasized the challenge of passing or attempting to block legislation in a divided government. President Obama and House conservatives regularly are at odds, said Lucas, and the Senate lacks a functioning majority to break the deadlock.

            “In a stalemate, the president attempts to use bureaucracy to drive his agenda. It’s maddening. Folks in this country have to decide which way we should go,” Lucas said.

Ideally, in a partisan Congress, he said, he would like to see a stripped-down farm bill that offers a choice of safety net programs for farmers.

“You pick which one you want. We tie down the resources for five years, and get back to farming,” he said.

However, he acknowledged whatever Congress passes must be acceptable to President Obama. Toward that end, he said a reasonable goal for a new farm bill is a balance of cuts between subsidy and conservation programs.

“If we can come up with a policy we can live with, so if five years from now we can’t pass anything, we have a policy we can live with in years five and six and 10. Having something we defend in the long-term is a whole lot better than reinventing the wheel. Because, at some point, they might take the wheel away from you,” he said.

Former South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Secretary John Cooper, South Dakota Grasslands Coalition Chairman Jim Faulstich of Highmore and South Dakota Ducks Unlimited Chairman Jeff Heidelbauer of Custer pressed Lucas with their insistence crop insurance be tied to conservation compliance.

“From 1985 to 1996, we had compliance with all direct payment programs,” said Cooper. “Compliance was taken care of, and it was well done. The facilities, the process and the regulatory procedures are certainly there.”

Faulstich praised Noem for her efforts to encourage cattle producers and to safeguard native prairie. She talked briefly about her proposal that prairie broken for crop production be ineligible for subsidies for four years to discourage such conversion. She related her interest in saving grass to the high regard she holds for the 600 acres of unbroken prairie on her family ranch. “It’s extremely special to me,” she said.

“I’m proud to champion this bill and get it in the farm bill.”

Heidelbauer said taxpayers who fund crop insurance do not want to see it uncoupled from conservation compliance.

Lucas told Cooper there is a strong sentiment in Congress to allow the federal government to exert influence over the production decisions of farmers who take subsidies and crop insurance.

“That perspective is very strong. In the final farm bill, I suspect there will be conservation compliance,” Lucas said, and he told Heidelbauer, “I think you are going to be really quite pleased with what ultimately comes out of this.”