By Nat Williams
With a sharply divided Congress, the only chance for agreement on a new farm bill lies in bold compromise, according to two Republican legislators from Illinois.
Sen. Mark Kirk and Rep. Rodney Davis addressed media representatives prior to a meeting of Kirk's agriculture advisory board here. They agreed that differences will have to be ironed out in conference committee, a panel comprised by members of the House and Senate.
Davis said the sharp divide between the two chambers requires concessions by members on both sides.
"To get a farm bill in place, what we need to do is get it to conference committee," he said. "A bill in the Democratic-controlled Senate will always have more, cost more and never pass the House. Conversely, a bill in the Republican-controlled House will always have less, cost less and never pass the Senate.
"We have to make sure that our leaders don't get bogged down in the details until we get to the conference committee, so then we can find the common-sense solutions that Senator Kirk and I are working together for."
Kirk likened the legislation to a ship in rough seas.
"If you look at the farm bill in the current deficit politics in Washington, it's like we're in a boat looking out to a storm and you say, "Do we really need to go out there?'" he said. "The farm bill in these bills could be looking really different."
He believes a leaner bill will be the reality.
"A farm bill that costs less will have a greater opportunity to pass the House and Senate," he said. "That's my political view."
He added that a bill with Republican support would include a slimmed-down farm subsidy portion.
"It would probably have some means testing in it," he said. "If you're wealthy, you probably can't qualify for a subsidy."
Davis pointed out that the most important part of the bill for most farmers -- subsidized crop insurance -- should not only be maintained, but enhanced.
"I think it's crucial that we have a strengthened crop insurance program," he said. "Crop insurance here in Illinois is working. It's cost effective, and it's budgeted, unlike the disaster assistance in the past."
According to Davis, there is little likelihood of separating the agricultural components of the farm bill from the bill's largest entity -- the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp program.
"There are many in Congress on both sides who would like to see the bill separated, but I don't think that's reality right now," he said. "We're going to go through a farm bill process that will include the SNAP and will include our agricultural long-term policy needs together, and we need to work within those parameters."
The food assistance program is ripe for reform, according to Kirk. He pointed to reports that the native Chechen brothers accused of the terror bombings at the Boston Marathon received government assistance that included food subsidies.
"There's obviously some security, some integrity reforms that we need to look at with SNAP," he said. "The Boston bombers were apparently on welfare. We want to make sure that the program has real integrity."
He also is pushing for inclusion in the farm bill of a bipartisan initiative introduced by a quartet of Illinois legislators aimed at river transportation improvements.
The Water Infrastructure Now Public-Private Partnership Act would create a pilot program to look at producing agreements between the Army Corps of Engineers and private entities for funding of river infrastructure projects.
It was introduced by Kirk and Davis, along with Illinois Democrats Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Cheri Bustos.
"Any farm bill to be meaningful to Illinois would have to include aspects of the Durbin-Kirk public-private partnership legislation," Kirk said.