Frank Lucas is hopeful to get a 2013 Farm Bill done

Farm Forum

Following the opening business meeting of the House Agriculture Committee in the 113th Congress, Committee Chairman Frank Lucas spoke with Radio Oklahoma Network Farm Director Ron Hays. He said budgetary issues are getting the lion’s share of attention in Washington right now, and a 2013 farm bill, unfortunately, will have to take a back seat for awhile.

Lucas said the main job facing him and Ranking Member Collin Peterson is to bide their time and get a farm bill on the House agenda when the timing is right. He said that task never really ended at the end of the last session, but it “is the ongoing effort both he and I have been engaged in trying, whether it’s with the speaker, the majority floor leader, the whip, trying to get the attention of leadership, of the majority leadership, and get them to understand that while there are a lot of important things going on here-budget issues, CRs, sequestration, and war and peace, nonetheless a comprehensive farm bill affects not only everybody in rural America that produced that food and fiber, but every consumer.”

Lucas said the task won’t be easy.

“Right now, we are in a position where, like certain parts of last session, it’s hard to get the attention span of what I call management. There’s so many things going on all around them simultaneously, but I’m optimistic we can get her done. We came very close in the last session and, even though we technically start over in this session of Congress with a brand new bill, a lot of work has been done. A lot of the hearings have been done. We just need to be given just a little bit of flexibility so that we can do our work.”

Lucas said there is a lot of clutter that has to be cleared before the farm bill will get much consideration.

“We are about to address the debt-ceiling issue. The federal government is now 16-plus trillion dollars in debt and the President can no longer write any checks in the checkbook. That’s got to be addressed. We have these automatic cuts we agreed to last summer for sequestration. They will have huge effects on the military. But it also affects all of the non-nutrition portions of the farm bill, even the one-year extension of the farm bill. That’s got to be addressed. And the federal government is only funded for the first half of the year. That runs out in March. So, I understand why management is consumed by all these other issues, but in that stage, Collin and I and the committee, we’ll get our new members up to speed. We’ll do the preliminary work so that people can focus around here on a variety of things. We’ll be ready to go.”

Lucas said he was pleased with the announcement by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and the FSA that sign-ups will start in February for direct payments and the ACRE program. He said that action is very helpful for the future of a 2013 farm bill.

“It’s important for a number of reasons. Number 1: By extending the last farm bill from five years to six, you have to extend the safety net that’s a part of it. And the direct payments are a big component of the safety net out there for production agriculture. So, having the secretary follow the law and announce those sign ups, it will begin. And people will be committed for this next year. That’s a very important principle to tie down.

“Also, from the perspective of writing the next farm bill, that protects the budget baseline numbers, the money that’s set aside for those direct payments this time because we need that in whatever the next farm bill looks like, those resources to be available to craft the next safety net whether it’s price protection or revenue protection, whatever the case may be.”

While anything is possible, Lucas said, he believes that no matter what happens in the fiscal debates about to occur, producers who are signing up for programs under the farm bill extension can be relatively certain the government will honor its obligations.

“I think we start off on the assumption, that by signing up for that direct payment, that it’s coming. We start off by assuming the resources that are in crop insurance will be there. We start off with those assumptions. Who knows what kinds of twists and turns the whole process will take? But, if there are cuts in broad federal spending, whether it’s sequestration or whatever the ultimate budget CR deal is, at least I’m confident this time that it will affect the whole of the federal budget and that’s better because as few of us as are out in the countryside now, we become more and more of a political target because we have the fewest votes to cast even though we still do one of the most important things for this country which is feed the nation and the world.”

With so many issues now staring Congress in the face, Lucas said, the whole process of getting a new farm bill to the floor will remain in flux for quite some time, Lucas said.

“There’s so many pieces in play, sadly, I don’t believe we’ll know the lay of the land for several months. That’s why you didn’t hear Collin or myself today, in our business session, call for an immediate markup because I think it would be foolish to start down the process now when we just don’t know what the obstacles are or what the opportunities may be yet.”

When is it reasonable to expect a markup?

“It can’t be until there’s some certainty sorted out in this process and I would tell you that February, March, April into May is going to be a rollercoaster ride up here on all the other spending issues and all the budget issues.”

Lucas said that until there’s a budget to work from, there’s no point in calling for markup as the bill would have to be written all over again with new numbers. Without a realistic chance for markup before early summer, Lucas said that is why the extension to the 2008 farm bill was necessary to carry farmers through September of this year.

Looking back on it now, Lucas said he doesn’t see how they could have done anything differently last year to get a farm bill passed.

“I don’t think, Ron, in a presidential election year, in a year with so many new members, in a two-year period when you had a divided government-a liberal President, a conservative House, nobody really in control of the United States Senate-I don’t think there was any way to do it differently than we did. We preserved the framework in our House-passed bill that gave options to all regions of the country that would have let everyone produce, that would have let them pick programs that were best for them, that would have kept the safety net. We did the best we could under the most difficult circumstances, but I would also remind our listeners you still have that liberal President, you still have a conservative House, you still have a Senate where no one has a functioning 60-seat majority. This is going to be tough again for the next two years, but that’s what the voters of the nation as a whole decided to do-to make a few minor changes, to keep the main pieces in place as they were for the previous two years. That just means that I’ll continue to enjoy a little Maalox now and then.”

With indications that the drought will continue across livestock country in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas, Lucas said he is looking for an opportunity to restore livestock disaster assistance that was left out of the 2008 farm bill extension.