By Jessica Wehrman
Just two weeks after the federal government re-opened, a joint committee of House and Senate members convened in a massive, ornate House hearing room and made the farm bill sound like the very salvation of Congress.
“This is the way things ought to work,” said former Senate Agriculture Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, as the committee sat down to complete the first five-year farm bill since 2008. “Get together in a conference committee and work these things out.”
“We’re going to lose credibility if we don’t get this bill done,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas. “We have to get this bill done.”
During a year when even the routine has been out of reach thanks to an unprecedented level of partisan rancor, members on both sides are hopeful that they can iron out a veritable gulf of differences on the $500 billion farm bill. They want to prove to the American public that despite the bickering and dysfunction, they still can legislate.
But the risks are high. The House and Senate bills have vast differences. Most notably: how to deal with federal nutrition programs, or food stamps, which account for more than 80 percent of the farm bill. The last bill expired Sept. 30, 2012, and a one-year extension to that bill expired at the end of September.
“Everyone calls it the farm bill, but it’s not really the farm bill,” said Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeville, Ohio, a member of the House Agriculture Committee. He says the nutrition portion has eclipsed the portion that supports farmers.
The House bill includes sweeping reforms that the Congressional Budget Office predicts would result in about $40 billion in cuts to the food-stamp program over 10 years. The Senate bill is more modest, and would bring about $4.5 billion in cuts over the same period.
Gibbs downplays the number, though, saying that with the exception of a handful of House reforms, those who qualify for food stamps now will qualify later. People are too focused on the number, he said, and not sufficiently on the reforms.
He said one reform would end the waiver to a requirement that those age 18 to 50 without dependents can receive only three months of benefits. Gibbs said ending the waiver will force people to “get off the couch” and get a job or volunteer.
“I’m all for people who legitimately need help, giving them a helping hand, but if you make these programs so accessible, so easy to keep staying on, there’s no incentive to work to get off,” he said. “It’s just human nature. People kind of become dependent on it.”
But Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks, said those cuts will be particularly draconian. You can’t get a job, she said, if there are no jobs available.
“Right now, the data tells us there are three job seekers for every one job opening,” she said. “Forty percent of folks who receive [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance] benefits work already. “ But to randomly cut them off effective Jan. 1 and believe somehow they’ll be absorbed into a workforce that continues to shed jobs is inhumane.”
The food-stamp program is the most-divisive issue in the bill, but there are other issues to be resolved as well. Both the Senate and the House agreed to phase out direct payments to farmers and rely instead on crop insurance, but Gibbs worries that the House bill’s Price Loss Coverage program would become a de facto substitute for direct payments.
The program would set target prices for a vast number of crops and pay farmers the difference if the price dips below that target. Gibbs said it undermines the concept of farm support.
“I can’t support a bill that’s paying farmers taxpayer dollars while they’re making money,” he said.
He and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, sent out a rare joint statement deriding the proposal, saying it would encourage farmers to overplant certain crops and distort the market.
Yvonne Lesicko of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation said the bureau wants to continue to have a strong crop-insurance program. Because of the current program, farmers who endured a drought the summer before last didn’t have to ask for federal disaster relief. “Crop insurance got the job done,” she said. “The program works.”
One thing is certain: Farmers are desperate for a five-year farm bill.
Christopher Gibbs, a Shelby County farmer based in Maplewood, has farmed for 35 years. He currently farms 460 acres in Shelby and Logan counties, raising corn and soybeans and running a calf-to-cow operation. He’s seen corn priced as low as $2 a bushel and, more recently, up to $6 or $7.
“I’ve seen it when I had to scrape pennies out of the couch to pay the bills,” said Gibbs, who is not related to the congressman.
Gibbs’ farm-bill needs are simple: He wants a bill, and he wants it to have a good crop-insurance program. The lack of certainty, he said, has taken a toll.