Will there be a farm bill? Iowa congressmen agree food assistance funding is key

Harkin, King both expect agreement before year's end -- if it can happen at all

Iowa congressmen remain optimistic an agreement can be negotiated before the end of the year on a new five-year farm bill, but both sides have drawn lines that may make that difficult.

“I’m predicting we go up to about the Friday before Christmas to get a farm bill,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, who is not a member of the House-Senate conference committee working on the $97 billion-a-year farm bill.

Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Steve King, both members of that committee which started meeting this week, expect an agreement before the end of the year.

Unless there isn’t an agreement.

In that case, Harkin suggested a farm bill could become part of a catch-all omnibus spending bill Congress would take up in later December.

Harking, a former Senate Ag Committee chairman working on his eighth farm bill, also raised the possibility that unless the Republican-controlled House accepts the Senate’s higher spending level for food assistance, there may be no farm bill.

All agree the roughly $36 billion difference in nutrition assistance spending will be the ideological and fiscal roadblock to an agreement.

The House, largely on a party line vote, approved a farm bill that cuts $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)  over 10 years, while the Senate would cut about $4 billion.

“If the House insists on its cuts to SNAP, that is their choice not to have a farm bill,” said Harkin, who called the House GOP funding levels “mean-spirited and unconscionable.”

“The same extreme ideology-driven folks in House that forced a government shutdown are demanding radical cuts to federal food assistance programs that benefit the most vulnerable among us,” he said.

King, who chairs a subcommittee dealing with those food assistance programs, agreed that funding food for assistance will be the conference committee’s toughest challenge.

“I'm looking to our Republican leadership team to come up with some creative ideas,” he said recently. “But part of this is also to look at each other, talk to each other, judge the resolve.”

The $36 billion difference “is a big deal,” King aid. “We have to figure out to get to where we can say ‘yes.’”

Harkin indicated he’s not willing to go much beyond $4 billion in cuts to get to “yes,” but rejects the idea he’s being intransigent.

“Hard line? Don’t you think it’s the House that took the hard line?” he said. “Cutting 3.8 million people off food stamps is a pretty hard line. That’s the hardness. They didn’t get one Democrat to vote for it. That’s the hard line. We had a strong bipartisan vote (in the Senate). It’s not us with the hard line.”

Also in the bill are amendments from Grassley and King.

Grassley wants to establish a per farm cap of $50,000 on most commodity program benefits with a $75,000 cap on the others. He also wants to change farm program rules to prevent non-farmers from receiving payments.

King wants to attach his Protect Interstate Commerce Act that would prevent states from requiring livestock raised in other states to meet the same regulations as livestock grown in-state.

States could adopt regulations on the size of chicken cages and gestation crates, for example, but could not require livestock products shipped from other states to meet those same regulations.

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