American consumers and farmers might soon get a long-awaited Christmas gift: a five-year farm bill that would expand crop insurance for farmers but take less of a bite out of the $80 billion-per-year food stamp program.
The U.S. Congress, after years of short-term extensions and partisan bickering, looks ready to pass a bill before the Dec. 31 deadline, according to the two metro-east lawmakers who sit on the House Agriculture Committee -- U.S. Reps Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, and Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville.
Members of a joint Senate-House conference committee are set to begin negotiations on a compromise bill when the U.S. Congress reconvenes Dec. 13.
"The latest word we're getting is the conferees are making progress," said Enyart. "And they're more optimistic today than they have been."
Davis and U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, shared Enyart's optimism that Congress can pass a long-term farm bill that expands crop insurance benefits for metro-east farmers by Dec. 31.
"To make a long story short, I think there is a desire to have this thing done," Shimkus said.
The three metro-east lawmakers' confidence on the matter jibes with the optimism of U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., the Agriculture Committee chairman, who has declared the conference committee had made "great progress."
But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, seems to think otherwise.
The day after Lucas made his remarks, Boehner called on the U.S. Congress to extend the existing farm bill -- itself an extension of an extension from a year ago -- so the conference panel can hammer out their disagreements.
"You know, I've not seen any real progress on the farm bill," Boehner told reporters. "And so if we've got to pass a one-month extension of the farm bill, I think we ought to be prepared to do that."
Failure to approve a long-term farm bill before Jan. 1 could mean big problems, including the resumption of a commodity pricing system that dates back to the 1940s and could send the price of a gallon of milk soaring, Enyart said.
Another problem is the lack of certainty that farmers must continue to labor under, adding to the market instability caused by years without a long-term farm bill and natural disasters, Enyart said.
"We've gone from drought to flood, drought to flood, so there's enough uncertainty in the agriculture business as is without adding to the uncertainty over government programs to that mix," he said. "When you got uncertainty you got price instability, which causes problems in the market and cost fluctuations to consumers."
One of the big sticking points in negotiations centers on a plan to end $5 billion in annual farm subsidies, a program that critics contend pays farmers not to farm.
But moving forward with this plan has proven difficult because different farm groups are arguing how to restructure subsidies, with some agriculture lobbyists arguing for payments based on crop acreage and others wanting to base them on crop prices.
One of the changes in the law that Davis wants to see would also include a work requirement for able-bodied adults on food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.
Davis sits on the conference committee seeking to hash out a compromise that can be sent to President Barack Obama to be signed into law.
A compromise farm bill will likely contain provisions echoing the welfare-to-work rules approved by President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, according to Davis.
Able-bodied adults with no dependent children, and not enrolled in school or some training program, will have to find some type job or perform community service to qualify for food stamps, Davis said.
"I believe we will have a work requirement for them that would include work or community service or volunteer service," he said. "And I don't think that's too much to ask."
Over the last two years, the impediment to passing a long-term farm bill has been the divide between conservative Republicans and Democrats over how much money to cut from the soaring costs of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Last year, the federal government spent nearly $80 billion on food aid programs, or about twice the amount spent on food aid a decade earlier.
Today the logjam is not over S.N.A.P., "but rather working out the various payments to farmers," Enyart said, noting the disagreements are based on geography and crop specialties.
"You've got your differences between the corn and soybean guys and cotton farmers and peanut farmers," Enyart said, "and you got your differences between the corn guys and the wheat guys."
The final farm bill, Davis predicted, will contain a compromise between the $40 billion in S.N.A.P. funding cuts that House Republicans want over 10 years, and the $4 billion in cuts that Senate Democrats approved.
In early November, conference panel members were considering a compromise plan that called for $10 billion in S.N.A.P. savings over 10 years, though it remains unclear if that proposal will remain on the table when the panel meets next.
In any event, those proposed savings would come in addition to the $11 billion in food stamp cuts over three years linked to the Nov. 1 expiration of a temporary increase in food stamp benefits under the 2009 economic stimulus.
For a family of four earning about $670 a month in S.N.A.P. payments, that works out to a reduction of $36 per month.
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at email@example.com or 618-239-2533.