U.S. Representative Frank Lucas, R-Okla., Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, says he will “do everything I can” to get a farm bill done by late September.
“But the magnitude of changes,” he says, “dramatically alters commodity titles.”
Lucas, keynote speaker at the recent Southern Peanut Growers’ Conference in Panama City Beach, Fla., said the House needs to act soon to get the bill passed and into conference with the Senate.
Even with quick passage, Congress may need to extend current policy until new rules can be written and implemented, Lucas said. Wheat farmers, for instance, will be planting by mid-to-late September and need farm policy in place.
Also, livestock insurance provisions created in the 2008 farm law will expire, leaving them without adequate protection.
“We have to get the bill out of the House to a conference committee,” Lucas said during a press briefing following his prepared remarks.
Lucas said the next farm bill must be comprehensive, allowing all commodities to participate, or it will not be a true farm bill. A good farm bill “allows everybody to participate. I understand the perspectives of various regions. But it is a struggle and I am getting pushback. The House bill is good for peanuts,” he said.
Lucas said the House bill “offers substantial savings,” mostly from elimination of direct payments.
Partisan politics will pose a serious challenge for quick passage on the House floor, Lucas said, even though the bill “leaves the House Ag Committee with bi-partisan support.”
Polarization an issue
He admits that the polarization that has been the rule in the House for the last decade creates obstacles to passing a comprehensive farm bill by late September.
He said committee discussions “were civil; debate was meaningful. I will try to make that happen on the House floor, but we have elements to deal with.”
He still has hope. “We have to have faith in the majority of our colleagues that they will do what’s right for the country.”
Lucas said members of Congress who would like to split up the “three-legged stool,” that is the foundation of the farm bill have not thought through the ramifications of removing any of those three supports — commodities, nutrition and conservation.
“There are reasons we include nutrition in the farm bill.” He said agriculture commodities were able to stand alone in farm bill debates from the 1930s into the 1960s. “But things changed.” He said Jack Kennedy, as president, proposed nutrition aspects of the farm bill that later became the food stamp program under President Lyndon Johnson. Conservation was added later as the third leg of the stool.
Nutrition programs, Lucas said, added urban voters to rural voters to support farm bill proposals. Adding conservation expanded the base even more.
“Now, some folks want to split it up. Some want to kill part of it, but I want a comprehensive farm bill.”
He said the House bill makes substantial cuts in the nutrition program but “does not take one calorie off the plate of those who qualify. One segment of the House wants to feed everyone. This will be a challenge.”
He said Collin Peterson, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Ag committee, “stood with me” on the nutrition cuts, along with other Democrat members of the committee. “We have to assure that the resources go to the people who need them,” he said.
Lucas says he prefers to pass a farm bill the usual way, on the House Floor and then through conference committee with the Senate, but failing that, other options may exist.
Pre-conferencing the conference — working with the ranking members and ag committee chairman, among others, to work through the issues—could be possible. They would then take the bill to the full House and Senate for “an up or down” vote.
“All sorts of scenarios are possible,” Lucas said, possibly even working through an appropriations bill.
“But I’d rather do it the regular way.”