House ag chairman outlines farm bill priorities

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway says he plans to have a farm bill ready in January or February but to expect individual pieces of farm legislation in stand-alone bills before that.

Those stand-alone pieces will test lawmaker sentiment, and the plan is to roll them into the farm bill, he said in a media phone conference.

Top priorities are creating a safety net for cotton growers, fixing the Margin Protection Program for dairy farmers and the Agricultural Risk Coverage program for grain growers and finding money for a vaccine bank for foot and mouth disease.

Most of the farm bill deliberations will be more of a fine-tuning than a shift in focus, but it will be in an environment of limited resources, the Texas Republican said.

The 2014 Farm Bill was supposed to spend $23 billion less than the 2008 Farm bill, but it’s looking more like it’s going to be $100 billion less, he said.

“I’m not necessarily going to be able to reclaim all those (dollars), so we’ve got some hard decisions to make. And it’s going to require the Wisdom of Solomon to make some of them,” he said.

Everyone is arguing, justifying and making the case for why their program should have more money than what was in the 2014 Farm Bill, he said.

“If there is a shift in focus, it is to focus like a laser on SNAP,” he said.

Reform — not food-stamp cuts — to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has been the focus of more than 30 listening sessions, he said.

The aim is to get the policy correct, reset the success metric and address the “moral hazards baked into” the program. The focus is not on what is spent but giving people the help they need and getting them back on their feet to where they no longer need the program, he said.

“I have religiously stayed away from any references to food-stamp cuts because that is a pejorative to most folks on the Democratic side, and I’m trying not to let that happen,” he said.

“We’re going to propose reforms to the policy we believe are in the beneficiaries’ best interest as well as respectful of the taxpayer,” he said.

He said he and Rep. Colin Peterson, D-Minn. and ranking member on the Ag Committee, are “shoulder to shoulder” on almost everything they’ll be doing on the farm bill, and he anticipates Peterson’s active involvement.

“I’m going to be working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get as good a farm bill as we can get so that we can get a big vote in the House and then try to prevail against whatever the Senate might come up with,” he said.

Conaway said he is committed to continuing to push the process to get a farm bill done on time.

Senate Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., wants to move quickly as well to give lawmakers ample time to work out the differences between the House and Senate bills before the drop-dead date of Sept. 30, he said.



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