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No farm bill news yet

By Jerry Hagstrom

Forum News Service

WASHINGTON — Congressional farm leaders will make no announcements about the content of the farm bill until they return to Washington the first week of January.

The Senate went out of session Dec. 20 and is scheduled to return Jan. 6. The House left a week earlier and is scheduled to return Jan. 7.

The members of the committees and their staffs have continued working to merge the House and Senate bills into a conference report, but they have managed to avoid leaks to the press or to lobbyists for farm groups.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has said that the leaders want to present a framework for the bill to all the conferees before releasing it publicly.

Several lobbyists said that congressional staffs are declining to provide details at this point, a factor that makes them believe the bill is nearly done, but makes them nervous about how the final product may affect their clients.

Lobbyists said they expect an open conference meeting Jan. 7, 8 or 9 or possibly some combination of those days.

They also said they expect public votes on proposals on changing the country-of-origin labeling for red meat law, on changes to the Packers and Stockyards Act provision in the 2008 farm bill, on the interstate commerce amendment sponsored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and on the repeal of the 2008 farm bill provision that would move inspection of catfish from the Food and Drug Administration to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Perhaps the most important development before Congress left town is that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told reporters he will support the farm bill nutrition title that is likely to cut $8 billion from the food stamp program over 10 years.

Harkin, a former Senate Agriculture Committee chairman but not one of the principal negotiators on this farm bill, said he doesn’t particularly like the cuts, “but I think we can live with it."

Support from Harkin, one of the most liberal members of the Senate, is important for Stabenow, who has proposed the cut but has been criticized by House Republicans for making it too small and by anti-hunger activists for making any cut at all.

Harkin told rural reporters that he and Stabenow had discussed the provision, which centers on the amount states pay in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Under the rules of the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, participants are allowed to deduct their utility bills from their incomes. But in some states, energy expenses are more likely to be included in rent, and in those states food stamp beneficiaries who also get LIHEAP payments can use them to reduce their incomes and trigger higher food stamp benefits. This has led some states to make tiny payments of $1 per year or less simply to raise food stamp benefits.

“Some states were gaming this LIHEAP thing,” Harkin said.

The Senate farm bill said a state would have to provide a $10 per year payment, but the House said the state trigger should be $20 per year.

In negotiating the conference agreement, Stabenow appears to have gone along with the House on this point, which the Congressional Budget Office says would save more than $8 billion, but has declined to go along with other House provisions that would save $39 billion over 10 years and cause as many as 4 million people to lose their benefits entirely.