What a difference an election makes when it comes to writing a new farm bill, says the University of Tennessee’s Daryll Ray. Before Nov. 2, House Ag Committee Chair Colin Peterson (D-MN) wanted to write the new farm bill in 2011. However, in the new Congress, he’ll be the Ranking Member and Frank Lucas (R-OK), who will be the new Ag Committee Chair, has indicated he prefers 2012.

Meanwhile, the Senate Ag Committee has a new chair, Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), as a result of Blanche Lincoln’s (D-AR) reelection loss. Though the Democrats retained control of the Senate, they’ll have a smaller margin in the 112th Congress.

"In addition to Lucas’ desire to move slowly on writing a new farm bill, at least 20 of the 46 members of the House Ag Committee will be new, both to the House and the Committee. The new members will face a steep learning curve in order to become conversant in the arcane details of the farm bill and the many programs it encompasses. If for no other reason than that, it would be unrealistic to expect to see legislation move quickly through the committee.”

Ray says that while Peterson is a known quantity when it comes to writing a farm bill, it will take time to have a clear vision of the approach Lucas will bring to the process. In the past, Lucas has been more partisan than Peterson. How this will play out as he tries to fashion the kind of coalition that is needed to pass a farm bill is yet to be determined.

"One thing Lucas has been clear about is that he strongly supports direct payments and has given no indication he would be willing to divert some of that money to other programs like insurance,” Ray says.

"Talking about money, that could be a problem in writing new legislation for a number of reasons. First, current prices are high and if they stay that way until the March 2012, 10-year projection of the cost of continuing current programs, the baseline will be low, leaving the farm bill folks with a smaller pot of money to divide up among the many programs,” he says.

Second, long-time chief economist of the House Ag Committee, Craig Jagger, has identified at least 37 current programs or provisions with no baseline funding after 2012. They include: the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which provides funds to help farmers come into compliance with environmental regulations; the Wetlands Reserve program; the Grasslands Reserve program; the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition program; and the SURE permanent disaster assistance program (it has no funding after 2011). Jagger estimates it would take $9-$10 billion to fund these programs over 10 years.

To fund these programs under the current “pay as you go rules,” Ray says Congress has to find a funding offset. That means money will have to be taken from another program. As Jagger says, “you essentially are looking at robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

"Third, many of the funding gimmicks used to fund 2008 Farm Bill programs – 2008 was also a year with high commodity prices and a relatively low baseline – have been used up and aren’t available for the new legislation,” Ray says.

Fourth, concern over deficit reduction may result in spending-reduction targets being given to all committees, Ray says. So, in addition to a lower baseline, and $10 billion in unfunded programs, the ag committees may have to contend with an additional reduction in the money they have to fund the many programs in the farm bill.

"As if that weren’t enough, the recently adopted FMAP/Education jobs law was funded by using $12 billion over the next 10 years from the food stamps program; and the child nutrition bill, now before Congress, may also use food stamp funding as an offset for its costs. That will leave the nutrition portion of the farm bill also short of money.

"While we can’t predict what Congress will do, we can be confident in predicting that the next two years will be a nail-biter for farmers,” he says.
-- Ron Hays, Radio Oklahoma Network