By Todd Neeley
DTN Staff Reporter
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- If for some reason a new farm bill isn't completed in 2017, leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees said on Tuesday they're hopeful they can at least help farm-bill programs for dairy and cotton through the current budget appropriations process.
One thing is abundantly clear, the next farm bill likely will be written with no expected budget increases. In addition, lawmakers understand the challenges farmers face in this time of low commodity prices. They are weighing the urgent need to draft a new farm bill in 2017, with the political reality that 2018 is an election year.
House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders met Tuesday with members of the North American Agricultural Journalists.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, said he's concerned if a new farm bill is not passed this year farmers may suffer even more damage. Peterson noted agriculture "dodged a bullet" with good crops last harvest.
"But we're starting to see some pressure in financing and I don't see any real turn-around in prices," Peterson said. "So I'm concerned about getting an average or poor crop. If that happens we'll have trouble. I don't think the farm bill is set up to fix these problems. We should have never written a farm bill when prices were good."
The Dairy Margin Protection Program, for example, has not helped small producers manage price swings and dairy interest groups hope to see additional payments through the appropriations process. Cotton producers have faced similar problems and would like to see the Price Loss Coverage program expanded to make cottonseed eligible for coverage.
"I'm somewhat optimistic there will be a fix in an appropriations bill to fix both," Peterson said.
Through appropriations, the cotton and dairy programs could be given at least baseline budgets to make the programs easier to fund in the next farm bill. If there isn't additional funding provided for the 2018 farm bill, other programs seeking more funds would force cuts elsewhere in the farm bill.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said he hopes lawmakers soon will have a farm bill blueprint to give lawmakers a chance to pass legislation this year.
"The Senate agriculture committee is the least partisan," he said. "We know we have to be bipartisan or we cannot pass a bill in the Senate."
The 2014 farm bill passed the committee in two days, Roberts said, and this time around the stakes are higher for farmers.
"I think we can do it because the need is so great," he said.
Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said his goal is to get the next farm bill out on time. The committee is slated to hold listening sessions in May and June.
"We're looking for spots around the country where we want to hear from rank and file folks," he said. "The 2018 farm bill has a much different backdrop. It will be readily apparent why we need a safety net."
In the next farm bill, however, Peterson said he'd like to see small dairy producers have access to some kind of insurance.
"The problem is dairy farmers are used to getting a check and not used to taking out insurance," he said. "We want to make it (insurance) affordable so they can't refuse to do it."
In addition, there is talk about changing the Conservation Reserve Program, which is currently capped at 24 million acres. Peterson said there either needs to be a larger cap or the CRP should be opened up to allow haying and grazing. Also, Peterson said the program has placed too much emphasis on continuous acres and less on general sign up.
"There's a lot of reform we could do on CRP," Peterson said. "When you have low prices the best thing you can do is get land out of production to raise prices."
Congress's ability to pass a farm bill this year, Peterson said, may depend on whether lawmakers decide to propose changes to the major nutrition aid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
"As long as SNAP is not fooled around with I think we'll be fine," Peterson said. "If there is too much monkeying around with SNAP it could be a problem."
Conaway said the House has held 18 hearings since last year to consider possible reforms related to SNAP. Because Congress likely will have the same amount of funding or even less, he said lawmakers want to be sure not to pit various agriculture interests against each other.
Perhaps equally as important is the need to establish a comprehensive trade policy to expand agriculture markets.
On this front, the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved Robert Lighthizer's nomination to be the next U.S. trade representative. Add to that the Senate approval of Sonny Perdue to head USDA and Washington may soon give agriculture the attention it needs.
Although it could be argued the next farm bill should come with a budget increase to match the need in the countryside, the national debt looms over all federal agencies.
"I don't think we've paid as much attention on the budget side since (President) Reagan," he said.
"We all know we have a $20 trillion problem on our hands. We can't pass that on to the next generation. Money's going to be hard to come by. On the other side, we see programs where we just have to have assistance."
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., ranking member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry committee, said Perdue's leadership will be important on the farm bill front.
"We are glad he's there," Stabenow said. "In general, the 2014 farm bill was the right structure, but some programs have not worked. We're ready to write a new farm bill. We need to be able to have resources for the next farm bill. I'm very pleased we work hard to make the agriculture committee be a partisan-free zone. I know members on both sides of the aisle want to get it done."
Even if the next farm bill could address ways to expand the CRP program, Stabenow said budget reality sets limits.
"It costs dollars for us to be able to do it," she said. "We have to look at what we can do. This is where farm bills get hard. We will be operating in the existing budget."
Todd Neeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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