A cohort of legislators met in the capitol Wednesday in an attempt to find common ground on a new farm bill. But they made no real progress toward resolving differences between the U.S. Senate and House over legislation that covers a range of programs that affect dairy farmers, those who get food assistance and other Vermonters.
"Congress needs to pass a new farm bill -- it's getting ridiculous," said Jenny Nelson, the agriculture policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. "Dairy farmers have had no support after the MILC (milk price support) program expired Oct. 1."
The conference committee consists of 12 senators and 29 representatives. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, is the only member of the Vermont delegation taking part in the negotiations.
A conference committee consists of members of both houses of Congress, convened for the purpose of reconciling two different versions of the same bill. In this case, legislators will try to find a compromise between a farm bill the Senate passed in June and a version the House passed in September.
The farm bill sets the nation's food and nutrition policy. First created by Congress in 1933, the farm bill is traditionally passed every five years. In 2012, Congress failed to pass a new bill, and instead voted to extend the 2008 bill through Sept. 30, 2013.
After a farm bill was passed in the Democrat-controlled Senate, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, did not put that version to a vote in his chamber. Instead, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives drafted its own version of the bill, with deep cuts to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It was passed by a vote of 217-210, with no Democrats voting in favor. The Senate version passed 66-27, garnering significant bipartisan support.
Serving since 1975, Leahy has presided over the passage of seven farm bills. The Senate's president pro tempore, Leahy is the most senior member of that body.
In his opening remarks to the committee, Leahy stressed that this legislation sets much more than farm policy.
"This is not only a farm bill; it is a trade bill, a hunger bill, a conservation bill, a reform bill, an innovation bill, a deficit reduction bill and above all, a job creation bill," Leahy said.
According to projections, the Senate version of the bill would cut $24 billion from the deficit and around $5-6 billion from the SNAP program. The House version would cut $39 billion from SNAP. Senate leaders and the White House have thus far opposed deep cuts to the SNAP program.
ANOTHER DEADLINE LOOMS
According to its legislative calendar, the Senate has 39 working days left this year. While Congress works to make up business postponed by the 16-day shutdown in October, it is uncertain if a new farm bill will be passed by the end of the year.
The clock is ticking for local dairy farmers. If Congress does not pass a new dairy program by Dec. 31 -- be it the Dairy Stabilization Act as part of a new farm bill, or a standalone piece of legislation -- the government will revert to a 1949 federal statute, the last time a permanent farm bill was passed.
Because farming methods were much less efficient then, the government would pay about double for milk than it did under the last farm bill. In theory, the cost of milk for consumers would skyrocket.
The previous USDA dairy support program, the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC), compensated dairy producers when milk prices fell below a certain level. It expired at the end of September.
Without this crucial safety net, farmers are left unprotected from volatile market swings. In 2009, the global demand for milk fell by just 5 percent, and milk prices dropped by nearly 50 percent.
"Farmers have not forgotten the dairy crisis of 2009 and they know that an insurance program alone is not enough," Leahy said to his colleagues. "Without stabilization, we will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of additional dollars and virtually guarantee another dairy crisis."
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said a new farm bill is within reach, and that Congress is capable of meeting the Dec. 31 deadline.
"My hope is that the new farm bill will come as close as possible to the Senate version," Welch said. "It came close to passing in the House Agriculture Committee."
Welch said he believes there is bipartisan support for the Senate bill in his chamber. For the House to approve that measure, every Democrat and 16 Republicans would need to vote in favor of the bill.
"The challenge Mr. Boehner has is to rehabilitate Congress after the spectacle of the shutdown," Welch said. "That may provide incentive for Republican leadership in the House to compromise."
Welch reaffirmed his support for the Dairy Stabilization Act, but stopped short of saying he wouldn't vote for the bill if the program were stripped from it.
"I want to get (the Dairy Stabilization Act), and I'm going to work hard to get it," Welch said. "But if we don't get it, the question becomes what is the best alternative safety net can we get?"
SNAP CUTS TAKE EFFECT
As of this past June, more than 100,000 Vermonters were participating in the SNAP program, accounting for 16 percent of residents in the state. According to research by the USDA, 14 percent of Vermont households are food insecure, meaning they cannot afford to fulfill their daily nutritional need.
Welch and Nelson said they believe cuts to the SNAP program will be the biggest obstacle for the conference committee to surmount.
"Sen. Sanders will not support a farm bill that makes hunger worse," Nelson said.
Already, the SNAP program has become another casualty of Congressional inaction. A $42.5 billion increase in SNAP benefits that was authorized in 2009 to meet growing demand for the program expired Nov. 1, resulting in a 6 percent decrease for recipients across the board.
"The vast majority of SNAP recipients are children and the elderly poor," Welch said. "We're still dealing with the effects of the worst recession since the Great Depression, and a 6 percent cut means a family will have $30-40 less a month."