North Carolina has lot riding on the outcome of the closed-door drama playing out in Washington as members of Congress work against a deadline this month to hammer out divisions in a new five-year farm bill.
The bill is full of all kinds of programs that have an impact on North Carolina’s diverse agriculture, the state’s top industry. There are economic development programs spread across a state where 85 of its 100 counties are considered rural.
Crop insurance is a key part. Other sections fund research at North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University on finding better ways to grow everything from Christmas trees to tomatoes, melons and pecans.
But about 80 percent of the bill is spending for nutrition programs, particularly the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.
The Senate passed a $955 billion five-year bill in June with bipartisan support. It cut $4 billion from SNAP. The House of Representatives passed legislation that reduced SNAP by $39 billion.
“We’ve been hoping and hoping for months that a farm bill would come out that we could live with,” said Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau. “We’re fairly close.”
It’s the difference in cuts to SNAP in the House and Senate that have “held the farm bill hostage,” he said.
Daniel Haley, a lobbyist for farming interests, said most of the specialty crop programs in the bill aren’t in jeopardy of being cut in the final version. The big issues holding up the bill were differences over the makeup of crop and livestock insurance programs and cuts to SNAP.
Haley said one idea under consideration was setting spending on the nutrition program somewhere between the House and Senate levels, but no one is certain what House Republicans will support.
“They could kill the farm bill again over that issue,” he said.
It’s also possible that Senate Democrats would rebel over a bigger SNAP reduction.
Last summer, the House voted down a version of the farm bill that cut food stamps by $20 billion. Democrats voted against it because they argued that cut was too big. Many Republicans voted against it because the cuts weren’t big enough. A separate bill later pegged the food stamp reduction at $39 billion.
A committee of House and Senate members is trying to iron out differences by Dec. 13, when the House is scheduled to break until January.
Technically the matter must be resolved by Dec. 31, or a 1949 version of the farm bill will kick in because it is considered the “permanent law” and therefore the default if the bill is not reauthorized as it traditionally has been. If that occurs, the bill would be hard to implement and dairy prices would soar. Another extension of the 2008 law could bridge the gap.
So the negotiators are trying to at least resolve the key differences so that their staffs can get a final bill ready for votes on the House and Senate floor in January.
“The key is establishing a safety net for both producers and consumers when hard times hit,” said Tamara Hinton, a spokeswoman for House Agriculture Committee chairman Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla.
Ferd Hoefner, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said many smaller programs for diversified agricultural states such as North Carolina are still in play in the conference committee that is working out a final bill.
The bill eliminates direct payments to farmers, an element that used to be the core of the safety net. It replaces them with crop insurance policies meant to reduce the risk of natural disasters or price collapses. Negotiators this week were still working out different demands from producers of various types of commodities.
Hoefner said Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., is leading efforts on a crop insurance program for diversified operators, or those that have multiple crops or farm enterprises. McIntyre also is trying to get money for a grant program to help farmers do food processing so that they can sell to schools or hospitals.
McIntyre is the only North Carolina member of the negotiating group. A native of Lumberton in rural Robeson County, he is the second-ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, where the House bill was drafted.
He worked on many parts of the safety net for producers of livestock, peanuts, cotton and other North Carolina products, and a measure to eliminate what he said were costly and duplicative permits needed for pesticides.
“Our farmers need certainty to produce the safe and abundant food supply that we all enjoy,” McIntyre said earlier this week. “I will continue to work with my colleagues in conference and will not rest until we have done everything possible to pass a bipartisan, five-year comprehensive farm bill that works for North Carolina agriculture.”
The top four members of the committee working on the final version – the agriculture panel chairmen in the House and Senate and the top-ranked minority members – met on Wednesday and reported that they were making progress.
Farm groups say they want Congress to get the job done.
“Finalization of the farm bill is critical to us,” said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the North Carolina SweetPotato Commission. She said farmers needed a bill in order to be able to make long-term economic plans.
Deborah Johnson, chief executive officer of the North Carolina Pork Council, said the farm bill was important to hog farmers because it funds programs, such as disease surveillance, that support exports.
North Carolina’s two senators, Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Richard Burr, voted in favor of the Senate farm bill in June, but some North Carolina lawmakers are fighting to keep the full SNAP reduction that House Republicans backed.
Republican Reps. George Holding of Raleigh and Mark Meadows of Hendersonville were among 27 members of Congress who signed a letter in October written by Rep. Richard Hudson, a Republican from Concord, urging the House agriculture chairman to keep the $39 billion in SNAP cuts and other cost-cutting measures in the final version.
Their views are in line with national conservative advocacy groups.
American for Prosperity, funded by the conservative brothers David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, favors the $39 billion cut and made an earlier House vote on it one of the key votes it uses to score the conservatism of members of Congress.
AFP also made the Senate vote on the farm bill part of its scorecard. The group opposed the bill, calling it a “boondoggle” that didn’t make deep enough cuts to the nutrition and farm support programs.
Heritage Action for America opposed the farm bill both for on its farm and food support spending. Freedomworks, another conservative group, went further and said that even when the House cut SNAP from its bill and made it just about farm programs, it was still too costly.
North Carolina’s two senators, Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Richard Burr, voted in favor of the Senate farm bill in June.
State House Speaker Thom Tillis, who wants to run against Hagan next year, supports a five-year farm bill that provides a safety net, but would accept “reasonable adjustments” to SNAP and other programs, said his spokesman, Jordan Shaw. He declined to elaborate.
Mike Rusher, a spokesman for another potential Hagan challenger, the Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte, called the farm bill “a monstrous package of legislation.” He said Harris felt that the number of Americans who receive food stamps was a problem and that “we must look at eligibility standards.”
Three conservative Republicans who also want to run against Hagan – Bill Flynn, Greg Brannon and Heather Grant – didn’t respond to questions about whether they support the farm bill.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong first name for Mike Rusher, a spokesman for Republican Mark Harris.