House and Senate Agriculture leaders publicly chastised each other last week in a test of wills about whose vision for multiyear farm programs should prevail in a compromise measure. The next few days will determine whether the sniping represented a temporary setback or an impasse that ends efforts to produce a final farm bill.
Committee leaders are trying to retain control over likely cuts to programs under their jurisdiction by writing a measure that could provide more than $20 billion in deficit reduction over 10 years. The Congressional Budget Office has scored the House bill (HR 6083) at $35 billion in savings over 10 years and the Senate bill (S 3240) at $23 billion in savings for the same period.
The committees’ four principals — House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas and ranking Democrat Collin C. Peterson and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow and ranking Republican Pat Roberts — are at a disadvantage in their efforts to pull together a compromise. They are essentially operating without direction from the White House or Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who are in talks that could lead to a package of spending cuts and tax provisions to avert the fiscal cliff.
Lucas, R-Okla., said the group has more questions than answers as they try to overcome regional differences.
"The only commitment I’ve had from my leadership is that the farm bill issue will be addressed before the end of the year," Lucas said Dec. 13. "Does that mean a farm bill extension? Does that mean a farm bill? Does that mean a part of the big [fiscal] package? That’s not been clarified.
And, voicing questions being posed around the Hill, Lucas continued: "At what point is there a big understanding? And if that is the case, what will be the numbers, savings-wise assigned to us. By the same token, if there is not a big agreement, at what point are we turned loose to finish our work?"
Stabenow, D-Mich., agreed that without deadlines and directions it will be difficult for the principals to reach compromises.
"This is a very difficult situation because we know, all four Agriculture leaders have differences in philosophy that we could bridge if we were being told by our leadership this needs to get done," she said.
Outside of Congress, there’s a feeling among those following the committees’ efforts that some agreement will be reached.
John Blanchfield of the American Bankers Association said high crop prices are keeping anxiety down among lenders in farm communities.
"There’s a sense eventually something will be done. If corn was trading at break-even or below break-even prices, the angst level would be off the Richter scale," Blanchfield said. "I think bankers and their farm customers figure Congress will muddle along, and meanwhile we’ve harvested an OK crop worth a ton of money."