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Lobbyists say there's a chance for farm bill in 2012

LA QUINTA, Calif. — Two key agricultural lobbyists said here today they believe Congress will make a serious effort to write the farm bill this year and have a chance of succeeding because the fiscal pressures will be worse in 2013 than in 2012.

Bill O'Conner
Bill O'Conner
“The House will be desperate to get it done,” said Bill O’Conner, a former House Agriculture Committee chief of staff under the Republicans. “The question is whether you can get a bill through the Senate.” O’Conner is now a senior agriculture adviser at the law firm of McLeod, Watkinson and Miller.

Ed Barron, a former Senate Agriculture Committee chief of staff, noting that agriculture committee leaders had written and sent a bill to the failed supercommittee, said “I believe that process will be a major reason why we may be able to do a farm bill this year.”

Ed Barron
Ed Barron
Barron, who has been a partner in the consulting firm of Russell & Barron, has recently joined the law firm of Greenberg Traurig LLP. (See related story.)

Barron and O’Conner spoke on a panel at the International Dairy Foods Association’s annual Dairy Forum, a meeting of processors.

Barron pointed out that “a lot of people were left out” of the farm bill process, an apparent reference to members of the committees besides the chairmen and ranking members. But he also noted that more than half the members of the Senate Agriculture Committee are either chairmen of committees or ranking members or in the Senate leadership. “In the end they magically get things done,” Barron said.

The views presented by O’Conner and Barron are somewhat counter to current conventional in wisdom, but both are respected for their experience in managing farm bills in the past.

Kelly Rucker Bingel, a partner in the law firm of Mellman Vogel Castagnetti Inc., said the Senate is likely to go first.

O’Conner agreed, noting that there is a feeling the Senate is place where “bills go to die” and that House members “don’t want to burn chits” on a bill that might die.

O’Conner also noted that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wants an open rule on most legislation. If the farm bill is debated under an open rule, “the farm bill could be on the House floor for a very long time.” O’Conner said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., would have decide whether he can put a bill on the floor “that won’t be decimated” by opponents.

Barron and O’Conner agreed that House Democrats would be needed to pass the farm bill on the floor.

Andrew Novakovic
Andrew Novakovic
Andrew Novakovic, chairman of the Dairy Industry Advisory Committee and a professor of agricultural economics, said he would not place a bet on whether the bill would get passed in 2012, since a majority in the House and Senate must decide whether “they want to pass something or just beat each other up.”

Jerry Slominski, a senior vice president of IDFA for legislative affairs and economic policy who moderated the panel, said that his staff believes the open process will give IDFA a chance to make its wishes known. He said it will be up against the supply management provisions that are part of the dairy stabilization bill that House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., wrote into the supercommittee bill with the support of the National Milk Producers Federation, which represents dairy farmers.

But Novakovic said that opponents of the Peterson bill will need an alternative proposal or they will be considered advocates of the current dairy program that most experts say does not offer farmers the protection they need in a down market.

At the present time, Novakovic said, there are only two sides — “I’m for [Peterson’s] bill or I’m against it. If you want it to be different you should be working on Plan B. Otherwise you’re endorsing the status quo.”

O’Conner noted that supply control is “a dying precedent” that used to exist in many commodity programs, but is now only in the sugar program. He also advises the Sweetener Users Association, which opposes the current sugar program, and noted that program is being challenged.

But O’Conner added that in a time of fiscal stress supply management, which encourages producers to limit production so that prices stay high, such programs are popular because they don’t cost the government anything.