House Republican leaders can't agree on funding levels for agriculture, and that could mean 2012 will come and go without an extension of the federal Farm Bill.
The House Agriculture Committee hosted the first of four hearings on the 2012 Farm Bill in Saranac Lake last month. The committee had planned to reduce federal spending on agriculture by about $23 billion from the current draft, but since then, the House passed a budget plan put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wiconsin, which aims to reduce farm spending by between $30 billion and $33 billion.
The 2008 Farm Bill cost about $289 billion, but numbers on the new bill, which will be authorized from 2013 to 2017, have proven difficult to find. The Congressional Budget Office has scored the four-year bill at approximately $509 billion. The Enterprise's attempts to reach a spokesperson for the House Agriculture Committee were unsuccesful.
Eric Ooms, a dairy producer from Old Chatham, testifies before the House Agriculture Committee during a hearing on the 2012 Farm Bill at North Country Community College in Saranac Lake on March 9.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
Rep. Bill Owens said the Agriculture Committee reached a bipartisan agreement on the $23 billion in cuts. The Democrat from Plattsburgh told the Enterprise that the committee's chairman, Republican Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, doesn't think he'll be able to bring the Farm Bill to the floor because he will be blocked by the Ryan budget.
"This is really, if you will, an intra-Republican problem," Owens said.
Owens said that as a minority member of the committee, there's not much he can do to affect the situation. He said under House rules, Lucas can't advance the Farm Bill past the Budget Committee because that committee has already approved a bill with more cuts.
Owens said the original cuts proposed by the Agriculture Committee should be honored.
"That group of people knows the issues in the farming community, and as we know from the Ag Committee hearing that we had, we need to make sure we're supporting our ability to grow food and to produce beef and dairy in this country for our national security," he said. "I think Mr. Ryan is playing a dangerous game by trying to cut (agriculture) to the extent that he is."
At the Farm Bill hearing in March, several speakers, including Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, stressed the importance of putting forth a strong Farm Bill.
"No farms, no food," Gibson said at the hearing. "We need to get this right, or we're going to end up guarding food overseas."
Owens said the Ryan cuts would have a negative impact, although he also said the Ryan budget fails to specify which programs will be cut.
"If you cut too much in the ag budget, you may be importing food, which obviously puts people out of work in this country," he said. "But it also puts us more at risk in terms of being able to bring in food to feed ourselves."
The good news for farmers, Owens said, is that the Ryan budget will likely get voted down in the Senate.
If the Farm Bill fails to reach the floor for a vote this year, Owens said Congress would be forced to pass stop-gap measures to keep funding key agricultural programs. Those include the Milk Income Loss Contract, which pays dairy farmers when the price of milk falls dramatically or unexpectedly, and federal crop insurance, which provides aid to farmers in the wake of natural disasters.
Owens was in Franklin County earlier this week and spoke to farmers about the possible delay in reauthorizing the Farm Bill.
"They were very disappointed when I told them what was going on," he said. "They viewed it as more partisan politics: not getting to the root of the problem, not addressing the problem, and people were as frustrated as I am."
Gibson could not be reached by phone for this story. He said in an emailed statement that he recognizes the "difficulties and challenges in getting a farm bill done this year." He said he's grateful that the process is under way and stressed that farms are small businesses that need a "degree of certainty" regarding federal safety net programs.
Additional hearings on the Farm Bill have been held in Arkansas and Illinois. A final hearing is scheduled for April 20 in Kansas.