‘Super committee’ shapes the next federal farm bill
By Christine Souza
A group of congressional leaders known as the "super committee" has been meeting behind closed doors to develop recommendations to reduce the federal deficit—including a framework for the 2012 Farm Bill. Farm groups including the California Farm Bureau Federation describe the process as quite unconventional, compared to the development of past farm bills.
"Criticism is building over the process of drafting the farm bill under the umbrella of the super committee process and not having much of an opportunity for the public to weigh in," said Jack King, CFBF National Affairs and Research Division manager. "Though we would prefer a more open process, the end result may be satisfactory for the advancement of agricultural and nutrition programs—but clearly it's very different from the traditional approaches."
The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the "super committee," was created as part of a bipartisan agreement in August to cut the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion during the next 10 years. The committee includes six Democrats and six Republicans, with half of the members coming from the House of Representatives and half from the Senate. The committee is scheduled to issue a budget recommendation on Nov. 23 that will be voted on by Congress.
Last month, the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate agriculture committees wrote a letter to the super committee stating they would identify $23 billion in cuts.
"The agriculture committees did not want the super committee to preordain the next farm bill, so they wanted to get out ahead of that and offer their own dollar amount. Now, they are going one step further and putting in all of the details," King said.
While farmers and farm organizations recognize tough budget decisions will have to be made with regard to the next farm bill, CFBF President Paul Wenger said he would like funding for specialty crop and conservation programs to be preserved.
"California fruit, nut and vegetable growers led the charge in the 2008 Farm Bill to ensure that specialty crops would have their own title in all subsequent farm bills. This was the first real significant advance for specialty crops," Wenger said. "Funding was set aside in key areas including research, pest exclusion and market development. Now, we must maintain the progress we've made."
Wenger emphasized the need to ensure funding for conservation programs "that help farmers stay on the land and maintain the landscape."
CFBF also wants to assure that the farm bill includes new language that directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services to establish annual food safety research and technical assistance priorities, said Rayne Pegg, CFBF National Affairs and Research Division assistant manager.
"Right now, there are a number of research and technical assistance efforts under way, with little coordination among the two departments and the produce industry. We need to make sure our dollars and resources are directed to those areas that are of the highest priority," Pegg said.
She said the integrity of the national organic standard must also be maintained.
"We have asked that the farm bill include language that would give the National Organic Program subpoena authority to obtain records for review, and authority to stop the sale of products found in violation of the organic standards. Without this authority, the program has limited ability to act swiftly and enforce the standard," Pegg said.
Farm bill recommendations from the California Department of Food and Agriculture focus on job creation, protecting the environment and natural resources, revitalizing rural economies, investing in education, promoting renewable energy, and improving public health and nutrition, CDFA Secretary Karen Ross said.
"The importance of the farm bill cannot be underestimated," she said. "This legislation supports a wide array of programs and initiatives that the public relies on every day, from the abundance and safety of our food to public health and nutrition, economic development and the protection of our natural resources."
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has acknowledged that a tight federal budget will mean less farm bill funding compared to previous years.
"We simply need to do more with less. We have to simplify existing programs, we need to reduce redundant provisions, and we need to put a premium on creating innovative solutions to address our current and future problems," he said.
To reduce mandatory programs by $23 billion, Vilsack added, the safety net for American farmers must be reformed.
"You don't get to $23 billion unless you substantially change the safety net. I think you are likely going to see an elimination of direct payments and a restructuring of that safety net to focus on revenue and crop insurance and risk management," Vilsack said.
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(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.