Public session likely to hint at farm bill fate
WASHINGTON — House and Senate lawmakers responsible for writing a farm bill will gather publicly on Wednesday for the first time, a meeting expected to shed light on how quickly the conferees could strike a deal on the much-delayed legislation.
The 41 lawmakers are charged with merging farm bills passed this summer by the House and Senate into one piece of legislation, an arduous task highlighted by the $35 billion gap between the two sides on food stamp spending and the apparent reluctance of each side to budge from its position.
Top officials and staff from the Senate and House Agriculture Committees have met privately to work on a five-year farm bill, which includes crop insurance, subsidies, conservation, public nutrition and food aid programs. The conference, where lawmakers will make opening statements, could be the only gathering for the farm bill not held behind closed doors. By law, at least one meeting must be open to the public.
The five-year $500 billion farm bills being proposed by each chamber have a handful of differences on agriculture policy issues that need to be ironed out, but those who follow the process do not expect those to be a major hang-up that would impede passage of the legislation.
The provisions expected to be the most contentious focus on crop insurance. Unlike the House, the Senate bill mandates farmers who get crop insurance to meet certain environmental requirements. The Senate would require farmers with adjusted gross income greater than $750,000 a year to pay more for federally subsidized insurance. Both bills would end direct payments, doled out regardless of need, and increase the number of crop insurance programs available to farmers.
Lawmakers have to agree on timing. While the Senate bill has proposed extending both farm policy and food stamps for five years, the House would do farm policy for the same time, but only three years for nutrition. Agriculture groups fear that severing the two parts would lessen the urgency to pass a farm bill by siphoning off support from urban lawmakers.