WASHINGTON — Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., warned farm bill negotiators this week to give up any thought of including government-guaranteed crop prices in their final legislation or risk losing his support.
The former U.S. agriculture secretary and current member of the Senate Agriculture Committee said price guarantees like those included in the House version of the bill would return the country to a 1980's-era farm policy that encourages overproduction, kills international trade opportunities and ultimately hurts farmers and taxpayers.
“It's happened before, and it will happen again,” Johanns said.
If negotiators go down that road, Johanns said, he would rather see a one-year extension of current farm policy than adopt the House plan.
Asked about Johanns' concern, one of the negotiators, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he doesn't like price guarantees, either.
But Harkin said it could become necessary to give in on that issue in order to get concessions elsewhere, such as persuading the House to back off its proposed cuts to food stamps.
“Maybe they get (price guarantees), but then they've got to give up on their huge cuts in the nutrition program,” Harkin said of the GOP House negotiators.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., on Thursday encouraged negotiators to preserve in their final product the conservation compliance measures approved by the Senate. He said those measures help reduce soil erosion and improve water quality for both rural and urban areas.
Lawmakers have until the end of this year to agree on a new farm bill — or extend the current law — in order to prevent U.S. dairy law from reverting to an anachronistic 1949 law that could double the wholesale price of milk.
That deadline, known as the “dairy cliff,” may not be firm. The Agriculture Department hasn't yet said it would be able to immediately implement the law requiring it to bulk-buy milk at more than double its wholesale market price.
“I'm disappointed we don't have an agreement yet,” Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said after closed-door meetings involving the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. “We've had a number of occasions where we thought we were close, and then things changed.”
While several parts of the mammoth, multiyear authorization are “close” to being agreed upon, Stabenow said, conferees haven't reached a deal on cuts to nutrition aid, including food stamps, or how to craft an insurance-based federal crop safety net to replace direct payments to farmers, which they've agreed should end.
It remains to be seen if the negotiators can come together after lawmakers return from their Thanksgiving break. The window for action is closing fast, but Johanns said he wasn't ready to give up hope that they can come up with a five-year farm bill he can support.
“A (short-term) extension is not inevitable,” Johanns said.
This report includes material from Bloomberg News.