Congress to try again on farm bill

WASHINGTON -- The secret farm bill lawmakers drafted this fall is now history. Congress will take a second stab at overhauling agricultural policy next year, starting with public hearings in January.

Debbie Stabenow, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate agriculture committee, said the bill drafted behind closed doors and never released to the public will provide the framework for legislation lawmakers hope to write next year.

"We came up with a number of areas that are a foundation now for moving forward to the next round," Stabenow said Tuesday in a speech outlining her plans.

The idea was to stuff the farm bill in deficit-reduction legislation that a bipartisan congressional supercommittee was trying to agree on this fall. That effort failed.

There are sharp differences among farm groups, and some lawmakers, over how closely the bill should hue to the draft that Stabenow worked out this fall with her House counterpart, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and others.

That proposal would save taxpayers $23 billion over 10 years, scrap the fixed, annual payments that now to grain and cotton growers and create three alternative methods of guaranteeing income to farmers in case of declines in prices or crop yields in the future.

Corn and soybean growers in Iowa and South Dakota were pushing for a proposal in the bill that would create a program to compensate for some of their revenue losses not covered by their federally subsidized crop insurance.

Critics say at least one of the optional subsidy programs was so generous it could encourage farmers to make planting decisions based on what crops will most likely trigger a government payment rather than the crops the market most needs. "There's a real feeling we're heading back to governmental bureaucratic decision-making in agriculture," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

The critics include the ranking Republican on the Senate committee, Pat Roberts of Kansas, who said the proposals risk being challenged by other countries under international trade rules that frown on farm subsidies that encourage overproduction of crops.

"We should move forward and start at square one" on the farm bill, said Roberts. "We need to have the committee hearings and member input. We should have had that in the first place. We need to find out what producers really think about these proposals."

Under the law creating the supercommittee, the House and Senate would not have been allowed to alter the deficit plan so the farm bill would have been protected from being amended in the Republican-controlled House, where Tea Party conservatives and urban liberals are both critical of agricultural spending.

Putting the farm bill in the deficit-reduction plan would have avoided a "big, huge floor fight" over agricultural policy, said Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.

There still is a "slim possibility" that the draft farm bill could be resurrected and inserted in a tax bill to help offset the cost of extending a series of expiring tax breaks, said Peterson.

Otherwise, the House Agriculture Committee will start work on a new bill around February. "We will get a good bill out of committee in the House but what it will look like when and if it passes the floor of the House is anybody's guess," he said.

Lawmakers have until the fall of 2012 to enact a new bill or else will have to take action to continue subsidies beyond when the programs are set to expire.