Drought Turns Up Heat on Farm Bill
July 17, 2012
DTN/ Progressive Farmer
The drought gripping the country raises the bar on Congress to get a farm bill done and possibly reinstall some disaster programs that have expired, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said Tuesday.
The extensive drought conditions will require lawmakers in conference negotiations to revisit the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program, or SURE, that expired last September.
"I think the weather disaster is compounding the emergency," said Stabenow, D-Mich., following a hearing on Tuesday. "We have to get a bill done, both because of what we have in the bill and things I think need to be added in terms of disaster assistance. It's absolutely critical now that we get this done so there is economic certainty for farmers to make good decisions and to be able to address the disasters that are very, very real across the country."
As of Tuesday, USDA has declared agricultural crop disasters in more than 1,100 counties across 27 states. More than 100 counties in the Midwest and Plains were added on Tuesday across Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
In recent days, DTN has cited the declining crop conditions nationally, pressures facing livestock producers as cash corn tops $7.77 in the DTN cash index, and regulatory issues as states order irrigation shutoffs due to low river levels.
House leaders have said little about scheduling floor time for the farm bill since it was moved out of committee last week. The House bill has a broad array of critics from both parties who either argue not enough was cut from food programs or farm programs, or too much is being cut. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., is trying to convince his party not to further slice up the legislation while committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., is trying to get his party's members to back the bill despite its nutrition cuts.
In the Senate bill there is a livestock disaster program that is extended for 2012. There also are provisions for fruit growers. A widely panned program, SURE was not reauthorized in either the Senate or House versions of the five-year farm bill. Some senators, led by Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., have drafted stand-alone legislation to extend SURE. Stabenow said the bill is getting more consideration as the effects of the drought grow.
"Now, more broadly because of the drought that is happening across the country, we have talked with Sen. Baucus and certainly are interested in seeing something more broadly for 2012," Stabenow said. "I think it is going to be essential. It just raises a different level of urgency for us. We have to have a bill passed by the House so we can get this to conference committee and negotiate a compromise."
Stabenow added, "There is a tremendous sense of urgency across America right now. We can't kick the can down the road."
The National Farmers Union board of directors adopted a resolution on Tuesday supporting an extension of the SURE program for 2012 through the legislation offered in the Senate. NFU was an original backer of SURE in the 2008 farm bill.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he doesn't think a new farm bill is needed immediately to deal with drought concerns, but the legislation would be needed after Oct. 1. The problem, however, is there are fewer than 20 legislative days scheduled between now and Oct. 1 to pass a major bill and clear conference negotiations. The drought, however, puts a spotlight on the legislation.
"I think it adds impetus to the necessity of the House passing the farm bill," Grassley said in response to a question from DTN.
Grassley said he doesn't think an extension of current farm programs would ease some of the problems. If the 2008 farm bill were extended, Grassley said, lawmakers likely would extend provisions for direct payments to farmers.
U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, also said in an interview that the drought has raised the necessity for getting a bill adopted. On recent drives across Iowa, King said, "The further east it is, the drier it was. What we're seeing now with every 90-plus day is the drought is just moving further west."
The deteriorating crop conditions raise a variety of potential policy issues. There are rumblings, for instance, that some states or livestock groups will ask the EPA to waive the ethanol blend levels set for the Renewable Fuels Standard.
"What's going to happen with the availability of feed grains and the RFS?" King said. "What will EPA do having the authority to make those adjustments on the go? I think what I'm seeing so far is the markets are doing the rationing. That kind of decision isn't urgent that it be made, but it would be a high-impact decision."
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