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Drought gives urgency to farm bill, compromise on food stamp cuts

July 19, 2012|By Kim Geiger | This post has been updated, as indicated below.
  • Corn plants struggle to survive in a drought-stricken farm field near Vincennes, Ind.
Corn plants struggle to survive in a drought-stricken farm field near Vincennes,… (Scott Olson / Getty Images )

WASHINGTON -- As record drought conditions continue to plague farmers and send corn prices higher, some lawmakers are pressing House leaders to bring the now-stalled farm bill to the floor.

The legislation addressed by Congress once every five years was approved by the House Agriculture Committee, but there have been indications that House leaders won't bring the legislation to the floor before the election. Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) dislikes key parts of the bill, and many members of his party object to its massive farm subsidies. The bill also cuts $16 billion from food stamp programs, which is sure to spark a bitter battle with Democrats.

But as dry weather continues to hurt farmers, some say the bill can’t wait. Led by Reps. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.), a bipartisan group of 38 Republicans and 24 Democrats sent a letter Thursday requesting that House leaders “make this legislation a priority.”

Both the House bill and a bill passed by the Senate earlier this year contain beefed-up crop insurance programs that would protect farmers from losses like those being caused by the drought conditions.

“What do we do? We need to pass a farm bill,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Thursday morning in an appearance on MSNBC.

“The speaker needs to bring it up on the floor,” Stabenow said. “And frankly, we need to add some additional disaster assistance for 2012 as part of that. But we’ve got to get this done.”

The bill that passed the Senate in May contains many of the controversial subsidies and cuts food stamps by $4.5 billion. The chamber has been waiting for the House to act on its version of the legislation before the two chambers meet to craft a compromise bill.

Stabenow said the Senate is unwilling to accept the deeper cuts to food stamps contained in the House bill, but that it might be possible to meet “in the middle.”

“If the House gives us a bill, we’ll negotiate,” Stabenow said. “We’ll come together in the middle….But the House has to act so we can do that.”

The drought is believed to be the worst since 1956. Just 31% of the nation’s corn crops and 34% of the nation’s soybean crops are in good or excellent shape, according to the USDA.

Boehner said last week that there are “no decisions about [the bill] coming to the floor at this point.”

Also a point of contention will be a provision in the House bill that threatens to do away with animal and consumer protection standards enacted at the state level.

The provision, which was added by Iowa Republican Steve King as a midnight amendment to the House bill, would prevent states from blocking the sale of agriculture products that don’t conform to state standards. It was aimed specifically at a California law that will require, starting in 2015, that eggs sold in the state come from hens housed in cages that allow them to stand and fully spread their wings.

King, whose state leads the nation in egg production, says that the California standard violates the commerce clause of the Constitution. It blocks the sale in California of eggs produced in other states, like Iowa, that don’t have such a standard.

Proponents of the law say Congress should follow California’s lead. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has introduced a bill that would set a single national standard for all egg-laying hens.  An effort to attach it to the Senate’s farm bill failed earlier this year but the Senate Agriculture Committee will hold a hearing on the proposal next week.

[For the Record, 12:13 p.m. PST  July 19: This post has been updated to include information about King's amendment to the House bill.]

kim.geiger@latimes.com

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