The House and Senate farm bill conference committees continue to push toward the finish line. At this point, most of the conferees are not being included in discussions on the remaining items to resolve. The leaders of the conference committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., are still trying to sort out issues on dairy, commodity program payment limitations and country-of-origin labeling.
On dairy, reports indicate a compromise is close at hand, and it likely will not include the supply management provision Rep. Peterson had been advocating for the last two years. It has been well documented that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is adamantly opposed to the supply management measure, and threatened not to bring the farm bill to the floor for final approval if it included supply management. From reports coming out of the halls of Congress, it appears the speaker will get his wish.
On the heels of what appears to be a possible solution to the dairy debate, commodity program payment limits have now taken a front seat in the negotiations. The payment limits language is reportedly one of the last major hang-ups with getting the bill completed. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., each were successful in getting an overall cap on farm program payments set at $250,000 in the Senate and House versions of the farm bill.
In addition, both bills included language closing loopholes that non-farmers have used to obtain farm program payments. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently conducted an examination of how the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the “actively engaged” requirements, where individuals have to meet certain requirements to be considered “actively engaged” in farming thereby allowing those individuals to receive farm payments. The GAO report found instances where non-farmers were using loopholes in the law to qualify as “actively engaged,” and receiving commodity program payments.
Despite the payment caps and language closing loopholes being included in both Senate and House versions of the farm bill, Cochran and Lucas oppose the provisions, while Stabenow has dug in to keep the provisions in the final bill. If reports are accurate, a deal is in the works to resolve the payment limits issues, although it remains to be seen just how different the final language will be from what is in the bills passed by each chamber.
According to congressional sources, the conference committee expects the remaining issues to be wrapped up by next week when Congress is back in session. This would clear the way for the House and Senate to vote on approval of the conference report sometime in early February, if everything goes smoothly; judging by how this farm bill process has been dragging on over the last three years, that remains a big “if.”