Congressman holds out hope for a farm bill

Published 11:17 am Thursday, May 9, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — An influential Minnesota voice on agricultural policy said Wednesday that he’s hopeful Congress will pass a new farm bill this summer after efforts last year failed amid election year politics.

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, threatened earlier this year to sit out the process of writing a new farm bill unless he got a guarantee from House Republican leaders that they’d let the legislation come up for a floor vote this time. Peterson told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he’s now “fairly comfortable” with the assurances he’s received from Speaker John Boehner and others, so his name will be on the bill when it’s unveiled later this week.

Both the House and Senate agriculture committees have scheduled sessions next week to begin shaping their versions of the bill, which will guide agricultural policies and spending for the next five years. The bulk of the money goes toward food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. One of the main reasons House leaders blocked a floor vote last year was opposition from conservative members who wanted even deeper cuts to SNAP than the bill contained.

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Peterson said Boehner made it clear to him in their recent discussions that “he wanted to get this over with.” And he noted that Majority Leader Eric Cantor said late last week that the House will vote on it this summer. Peterson said he’s optimistic that he and Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., will be able to keep the bill close to what the committee passes and get it into a conference committee where they’ll resolve the differences with the Democratic-controlled Senate’s version.

The Senate’s version won’t cut SNAP as much as the House version, and Peterson said they’ll need to work out that difference.

But he said he expects the most difficult problem to reconcile will be the different approaches between the House and Senate bills toward restructuring crop subsidy programs. Last year’s Senate bill would have replaced a program called countercyclical payments, which compensates farmers when prices fall below target levels, with enhanced crop insurance. But Peterson said the farm bill won’t pass unless it gives farmers a choice between both options, as the House version will.

Coming back this year will be Peterson’s proposal for a dairy policy overhaul aimed at protecting profit margins rather than just propping up milk prices. He said he expects renewed attempts to remove voluntary production controls from the plan, but he said he believes he has the votes to block that.

“It’s the one area that really needs the bill more than any other part of agriculture,” Peterson said of dairy policy. “Because what’s currently in place is just completely out of date and doesn’t work at all.”

And while Peterson said he opposes linking eligibility for crop insurance subsidies with compliance with good conservation practices, he said he expects some version of that will be in the final bill now that the American Farm Bureau Federation and other groups came out Monday in support of a plan. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also supported the idea of linkage in an interview with the AP on Monday.

For the moment, at least, Peterson said he believes the final bill that comes out of the conference committee will get enough votes to pass both chambers.

“I run hot and cold on this but as of today I’m pretty optimistic. … We could potentially get this done before the August recess, which would be a very good thing,” Peterson said.