Rogers: Farm Bill could be the last for decades
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Nov 09, 2013 | 4365 views |  0 comments | 41 41 recommendations | email to a friend | print
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks. Photo: Special to The Star
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks. Photo: Special to The Star
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MONTGOMERY — U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, wants to get this year's farm bill right, he says, because it affects millions of people — and because, he said, it could run the country's farm policy for a long time.

"This may be the last one that passes for decades," Rogers told The Star in a conversation last week.

Rogers is one of two Alabama representatives on the conference committee that is trying to reconcile House and Senate versions of the 2013 Farm Bill, a $500 billion piece of legislation that governs spending on agricultural subsidies and food assistance to the poor.

The House version of the bill would make many of the farm subsidies in the bill permanent. Rogers said he supports that proposal, because of a growing divide in Congress that has made it in increasingly difficult to pass farm bills on time.

Farm bills typically pass every five or six years — often with little attention from the public — but in a sharply-divided Congress, lawmakers have struggled to come together to renew the 2008 bill. Congress failed to pass a new bill in 2012, and has twice extended the deadline for a new one.

Republicans have asked for deeper cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, once known as food stamps. The program, which makes up the bulk of spending in the farm bill, grew after the recession, and fiscal conservatives say they want it trimmed back. Democrats have argued that those cuts will hurt the poor. The Democratic-run Senate has approved a farm bill that would cut SNAP by about $4 billion over the next 10 years. The Republican-controlled House wants cuts of about $39 billion over the same period.

Rogers is part of the panel chosen to reconcile those two versions. He said nobody's going to come out of the negotiations completely happy — especially the most extreme cost-cutters on the conservative side.

"The idea that they're going to cut more than $20 billion is just naive," Rogers said.

Congressional hyper-partisanship has taken a big hit with the public in recent weeks, after a Republican-led shutdown of the federal government in protest over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. After the shutdown crisis, poll numbers show, satisfaction with Congress dropped to a two-decade low, with Republicans generally taking a stronger hit than Democrats.

In a Thursday interview with The Star, Rogers seemed ready to bridge the partisan divide. Despite the regional differences that a farm bill inevitably brings on, he said, lawmakers were able to pass farm bills out of committee with strong majorities. The people in Congress with the most agricultural expertise, he said, are the ones who find it easiest to reach an agreement.

"When we're in that committee, it doesn't matter whether you're a Democrat or a Republican," said Rogers, a member of the House Agriculture Committee.

Rogers said he thinks Congress will come to an agreement on the farm bill soon. But he doubts future debates will be less partisan.

"If you look at how this is going, it's not going to get any easier," he said.

Agricultural economist Jim Novak said passing a farm bill is indeed harder for Congress than it used to be.

"Have you seen any legislation they've been able to get done in the past few years?" said Novak, a retired Auburn University professor who wrote a textbook on the farm bill.

Novak said it is indeed possible for Congress to pass a permanent farm bill that would end the need for renewals every few years. The last time that sort of deal was considered, he said, was the mid-1990s. Economists and policymakers warned that the last farm bill was coming, Novak said, and farmers scoffed at the idea.

"Turns out the farmers were right," he said.

Still, if Congress does nothing by year's end, Novak said, the country will revert to an old version of the farm bill passed decades ago. That would send food prices higher, he said.

Alabama's farmers have stayed largely silent on the debate over SNAP, which has dominated much of the farm bill fight.

"We're really staying out of that side of it," said Jeff Helms, a spokesman for the Alabama Farmers Federation. Helms said the group has resigned itself to the fact that there will be cuts in both sides of the farm bill. He said most farmers simply want to see a bill pass.

Talladega County Farmers Federation president Dell Hill agreed.

"Any piece of legislation we can get will help," said Hill, who runs a hunting preserve in Talladega County. Hill said his own operation isn't much affected by farm subsidies, but other area farmers can't plan for the future without knowing what the final bill is going to say.

"Agriculture is not like any other business," he said. "The way the political environment is, we're in a gray area, and it's very difficult to make decisions."

Rogers, Novak and Farmers Federation legislative director Jeff Helms all predicted that the final bill would contain around $20 billion in total cuts to farm assistance over the next 10 years. The bill would end direct payments to most farmers for growing certain crops, but would put more money into crop insurance programs designed to shore up farmers in bad years.

Budget hawks on both the left and right have zeroed in on farm subsidies, noting that they amount to government assistance for big agricultural conglomerates. Novak said it's true that in a world of large farming companies, a large amount of federal money goes to those companies. Still, removing subsidies entirely, he said, could leave more smaller operators out of business.

"The result would probably be more corporate control," he said.

Rogers said it's simply not politically realistic to expect to get rid of subsidies — or to expect to do away with SNAP.

Still, Rogers said he still hopes Congress can sever the two programs, making the debate about farm subsidies completely separate from the SNAP debate in the future. That's a Republican talking point that Rep. Martha Roby, R-Montgomery, is also planning to take into the farm bill negotiations.

Roby is the only other Alabama representative on the conference committee. Her spokesman, Todd Stacy, said early last week that the SNAP/subsidy split was still under consideration.

"She's glad that splitting the bill has not kept the conference committee from working together," Stacy said.

Hill, the Talladega County farmer, said the bill that comes out is likely to displease everybody at least a little.

"When you get involved in this process, you have to know that what comes out the other end is not always what you want," he said.

Hill wouldn't even speculate about Rogers' prediction of decades without another farm bill.

"If you know what's going to happen in 60 days in politics, you're at the genius level," he said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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