WASHINGTON — Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., put it simply when the House and Senate negotiators finally sat down Wednesday to start working out their differences over a new farm bill.
“It's been a long time in coming,” the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee said.
The temporary one-year extension that Congress approved previously has already expired. If nothing is done by the end of the year, milk prices could spike up and producers will be left in the dark as they make planting decisions.
Both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill would cost more than $900 billion over 10 years and would reauthorize farm subsidy payments, conservation programs and nutrition assistance. Despite the price tag, both versions would save billions compared with the current law, partly by food stamp cuts and partly by eliminating crop subsidies known as direct payments.
Every farm bill involves weighing competing political and regional interests. Many of the differences between the two versions most likely can be worked out relatively easily.
But there is one huge stumbling block. The Senate has voted to trim an average of $400 million a year from nutrition programs commonly referred to as food stamps. The House version cuts 10 times as much, or $4 billion a year, from the $80 billion-a-year program.
“We know that that's the real sticking point — the nutrition side of it,” Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, told The World-Herald, just before heading to the first meeting of the conference committee.
The outspoken conservative lawmaker from northwest Iowa is in an interesting position as a member of the House negotiating team. He favors sweeping changes to the food stamp program and is chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the program.
But he also has a significant interest in seeing a farm bill approved by the end of the year, so the producers in his heavily agricultural district can plan with certainty.
King said it's important to get the legislation finished before the calendar turns over and the country enters another politically charged election year.
“We need to give them five years of predictability,” King said of those making decisions about which crops to put in the ground.
While King is known for provocative language, he indicated that he's treading a little lighter in the hopes of moving something forward.
Still, he staked out his position during the conference committee's first meeting Wednesday when he said changes to food stamps are needed to cut back on waste, fraud and abuse and “ensure that those funds are available to those who are needy.”
Democrats point to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office that the House Republicans' proposals would cut 4 million people from the program next year and millions more in the years to come.
Asked about those numbers, King said Democrats also like to talk about thousands of kids being kicked out of school lunch programs, but he said he investigated those claims and found that many of those children will simply have to reapply under a different category.
“Sometimes the politics of a debate are just too good to use reason,” King said.
King said he hopes the atmosphere of the conference committee will be more cooperative and allow for some kind of compromise.
Another point of controversy will be a King proposal aimed at stopping California from extending its requirements on chicken cages to producers in other states who want to sell eggs in California.
“California or any other state is free to regulate their producers — even over-regulate their producers — to their hearts' content,” King said. “Under my amendment they can still do that. They just are not free to regulate or over-regulate the other states.”
On the other side of the table, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is among the Senate negotiators.
He said Wednesday in his opening statement that there are many mentally ill individuals in the country who cannot hold down a full-time job. That is why, Harkin said, it's important to preserve their eligibility for food assistance.
“I just hope that we can reach some reasonable agreements on the nutrition program, meet our obligations to the consumers of America and low-income Americans that have always looked to this committee — this committee — to ensure we don't have beggars on the streets and that people have access to affordable and nutritious food in this country,” Harkin said in his opening statement.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., is not one of the negotiators but he is on the Senate Agriculture Committee and is a former secretary of agriculture.
He said it remains to be seen how Congress will reach a compromise on funding for nutrition assistance, but there's no question that the issue is the key to moving the legislation forward.
“If you solve nutrition, you get a farm bill,” Johanns said. “It's that simple.”