Ag Chairman Undaunted by Defeat of Farm Bill

7/6/2013 7:00 AM
By Sue Bowman Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

You might think that U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, who helped write the 2013 Farm Bill, would be discouraged after the bill went down to defeat in the House on June 20.

Instead, speaking at a June 29 meeting of the Pennsylvania Ag Republicans in Lebanon County, Lucas seemed undaunted. Delivering his comments from behind three straw bales with a hay wagon as his platform, Lucas predicted, “We’re gonna get one done.”

Lucas, who represents Oklahoma’s 3rd District, appeared before a crowd of about 50 farmers in a barn on the South Londonderry Township dairy and crop farm of Carl Weidler.

He was joined by fellow congressmen Glenn “G.T.” Thompson from Pennsylvania’s 5th District, who serves as chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry, and Charles Dent, who was appearing in his home territory, the 15th Congressional District.

Also on hand to bring greetings from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, who was tied up in Harrisburg trying to pass a state budget before the June 30 deadline, was first lady Susan Corbett.

Lucas downplayed the Farm Bill’s initial defeat, saying, “We had a little setback the other day on the floor (of the U.S. House)” and predicting that a 2013 Farm Bill will be adopted.

According to Lucas, before that can happen, “All the players have to have their say.”

Calling for reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which is better known as the food stamp program, Lucas raised the possibility of splitting the Farm Bill into two separate pieces of legislation moving forward — one to deal with funding for programs geared directly to the farmer and the other to address food stamps.

“It’s not the way we’ve done things the last 50 years,” he said, noting that earlier Farm Bills got passed due to a coalition of urban and rural constituencies coming to a compromise.

“It’s a different world” today, Lucas said, pointing out that the nation is $16 trillion in debt, with no money — new or old — to infuse into the Farm Bill, which changes the playing field as key players look out for the interests of their own constituencies.

The challenge, he said, is “how do you spend less and still meet the diverse needs of agriculture?”

Lucas’ Farm Bill proposal would bring about a $40 billion deficit reduction over the next five years. Even if it were to be severed into two pieces of legislation, reforms would have to come from all the stakeholders, Lucas said.

Food stamps, which make up 80 percent of the proposed Farm Bill’s expenditures, would be cut by 50 percent.

The same 50 percent reduction would also be applied to the remaining 20 percent of the bill’s expenditures for programs tied to production agriculture, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Reserve Program, to name but two.

There has been debate about the wisdom of separating food stamps from the rest of the Farm Bill, as that could pit powerful urban interests against the rural sector for limited funds.

But in light of the current legislative impasse, Lucas said he believes Congress needs to “give it a try.”

He emphasized that farmers stand to lose the most if a new Farm Bill fails to pass.

Unlike the food stamp program, which has no expiration date and will continue uninterrupted regardless of the fate of the Farm Bill, agricultural programs for conservation and the like have built-in deadlines that will eventually bring them to a halt if the current Farm Bill extension is allowed to expire on Sept. 30.

For Lucas, the choice is simple.

“The core mission of the Farm Bill is to raise food,” He said, noting that, unlike other quarters of the world such as Africa, Asia and even Europe, the United Stated hasn’t had a famine in the past 100 years.

“We’re blessed,” Lucas said, adding that he believes the 2013 Farm Bill will help keep America from going hungry in the future.

Thompson backed Lucas’ comments by emphasizing that agriculture is Pennsylvania’s No. 1 industry.

“We have some of the most affordable, best quality and safest food in the world” in Pennsylvania, Thompson said. “It’s dangerous to depend on food from outside a country’s borders.”

Thompson laid part of the blame for the 2013 Farm Bill’s recent defeat in the House on “some outside, biased groups who don’t always get their facts straight.”

Thompson said he believes some of those outside groups have their own agendas, including fundraising for their causes.

He challenged those attending the meeting, saying, “We need to amplify our voice and exercise our First Amendment rights” to get the new Farm Bill through Congress.

Thompson recalled that Lucas was his mentor when Pennsylvania voters first sent him to Washington in 2009.

Pointing out that Lucas has a degree in agricultural economics from Oklahoma State University backed by an extensive knowledge base and personal experience, Thompson lauded Lucas’ understanding of agriculture, saying, “He gets it.”

In contrast, Lucas fears that many of his colleagues in Congress don’t get it, in part because “half the people in Congress who debated the Farm Bill in 2008 are no longer there.”

This unusually high rate of turnover among lawmakers has left a vacuum of understanding about regulatory changes that can save money without harming the agriculture industry.

But Lucas said be believes it is possible to “maintain a safety net while ensuring food and fiber.”

He has proposed that food stamps no longer be an automatic entitlement for persons receiving welfare payments. Requiring a separate eligibility application for food stamps could result in savings of $12 billion, he said.

Other proposed savings offered by Lucas include changes to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, doing away with direct payments to farmers and switching to insurance programs, and reducing enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program.

“We will get a Farm Bill. It will be good policy,” Lucas vowed in his closing remarks. “We will fight like cats and dogs, but we’re going to get there.”

Judging from audience reaction, sooner would be better than later.

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