WASHINGTON North Carolina has a lot riding on the outcome of a closed-door drama now playing out in Washington as Congress works against a deadline this month to hammer out divisions in a new five-year farm bill.
The bill is full of programs that affect agriculture, North Carolina’s top industry. Included are:
• Economic development programs for many of the 85 of the state’s 100 counties that are considered rural.
• Crop insurance to provide a safety net for farmers.
• Funding for research at N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University on finding better ways to grow everything from Christmas trees to tomatoes, melons and pecans.
But about 80 percent of the bill is spending for nutrition programs, particularly the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. In North Carolina, 1.6 million people receive SNAP benefits.
The Senate passed a $955 billion five-year bill in June with bipartisan support. It cut $4 billion from SNAP. The House of Representatives passed legislation that reduced SNAP by $39 billion.
The cuts that the House approved would affect an estimated 165,000 people in North Carolina between the ages of 18 and 50, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research institute.
It’s the difference in cuts to SNAP in the House and Senate that have “held the farm bill hostage,” said Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau.
Wooten added that after months of “hoping and hoping,” lawmakers appeared close to a farm bill “we could live with.”
One idea being considered is setting spending on the nutrition program somewhere between the House and Senate levels, but no one is certain what House Republicans will support, said Daniel Haley, a lobbyist for farming interests.
It’s also possible that Senate Democrats would rebel over a bigger SNAP reduction.
Last summer, the House voted down a version of the farm bill that cut food stamps by $20 billion. Democrats voted against it, arguing the cut was too big. Many Republicans voted against it because the cuts weren’t big enough. A separate bill later pegged the food stamp reduction at $39 billion.
Talks aim for Dec. 13
A committee of House and Senate members is trying to iron out differences by Dec. 13, when the House is scheduled to break until January.
Technically the matter must be resolved by Dec. 31, or a 1949 version of the farm bill will kick in because it is considered the “permanent law” and therefore the default if the bill is not reauthorized as it traditionally has been.
If that occurs, the bill would be hard to implement, and dairy prices would soar. Another extension of the 2008 law could bridge the gap.
So negotiators are trying to at least resolve the key differences so their staffs can get a final bill ready for votes on the House and Senate floor in January.
“The key is establishing a safety net for both producers and consumers when hard times hit,” said Tamara Hinton, a spokeswoman for Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre is leading efforts on a crop insurance program for diversified operators, or those with multiple crops or farm enterprises. McIntyre also is trying to get money for a grant program to help farmers do food processing so that they can sell to schools or hospitals.
McIntyre is the only North Carolina member of the negotiating group. A native of Lumberton in rural Robeson County, he is the second-ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, where the House bill was drafted.
He has been working on the safety net for producers of livestock, peanuts, cotton and other North Carolina products, and a measure to eliminate what he said were costly and duplicative permits needed for pesticides.
“Our farmers need certainty to produce the safe and abundant food supply that we all enjoy,” McIntyre said earlier this week.
“I will continue to work with my colleagues in conference and will not rest until we have done everything possible to pass a bipartisan, five-year comprehensive farm bill that works for North Carolina agriculture.”
The top four members of the committee working on the final version – the agriculture panel chairmen in the House and Senate and the top-ranked minority members – met Wednesday and reported that they were making progress.
Farm groups say they want Congress to get the job done.
Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the N.C. Sweet Potato Commission, call the bill critical and said farmers need it in order to make long-term economic plans.
The state’s hog farmers also depend on the bill to fund programs, such as disease surveillance, that support exports, said Deborah Johnson, chief executive officer of the N.C. Pork Council.
Bill funds research
Farmers aren’t the only ones waiting for a deal.
The N.C. Agricultural Research Service at NCSU receives about $8 million a year in federal funds for research on crop and animal diseases, breeding, food safety and other areas, said its director, Steven Lommel.
About half of Lommel’s own research on plant pathology over the past 25 years also has been funded through the farm bill, he said.
At least 100 scientists and technicians and their programs, plus federal Agricultural Research Service scientists hosted at the university, would lose their jobs if the farm bill funding disappeared, Lommel said.
“Particularly from pests, and water quality, and environmental changes and new regulations – there’s just constantly a need for us,” Lommel said.
“There needs to be a humming engine of research that a lot of people don’t see to keep developing varieties and solving these problems.”
North Carolina’s two senators, Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Richard Burr, voted in favor of the Senate farm bill in June, but some North Carolina lawmakers are fighting to keep the full SNAP reduction that House Republicans backed.
Republican Reps. George Holding of Raleigh and Mark Meadows of Hendersonville were among 27 members of Congress who signed a letter in October written by Rep. Richard Hudson, a Republican from Concord, urging the House agriculture chairman to keep the $39 billion in SNAP cuts and other cost-cutting measures in the final version.
Their views are in line with national conservative advocacy groups.
Americans for Prosperity, funded by the conservative brothers David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, favors the $39 billion cut and made an earlier House vote on it one of the key votes it uses to score the conservatism of members of Congress.
AFP also made the Senate vote on the farm bill part of its scorecard. The group opposed the bill, calling it a “boondoggle” that didn’t make deep enough cuts to the nutrition and farm support programs.
Heritage Action for America opposed the farm bill both for its farm and food support spending. Freedomworks, another conservative group, went further and said that even when the House cut SNAP from its bill and made it just about farm programs, it was still too costly.
Tillis, Harris take aim
State House Speaker Thom Tillis, who wants to run against Hagan next year, supports a five-year farm bill that provides a safety net, but would accept “reasonable adjustments” to SNAP and other programs, his spokesman, Jordan Shaw, said, declining to elaborate.
Mike Rusher, a spokesman for another potential Hagan challenger, the Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte, called the farm bill “a monstrous package of legislation.”
He said Harris felt that the number of Americans who receive food stamps was a problem and that “we must look at eligibility standards.”
Three conservative Republicans who also want to run against Hagan – Bill Flynn, Greg Brannon and Heather Grant – didn’t respond to questions about whether they support the farm bill.
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