Dispute between Peterson and Boehner part of latest farm bill snag

Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, spoke at a rally in front of the U.S. Capitol in 2012 for a new farm bill.  Brett Neely/MPR News

WASHINGTON –For the past several months, leaders from the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have repeatedly said a final agreement on the long-stalled farm bill is close, likely just days away. But as the 113th Congress convened this week for its second session, it’s become clear that the finish line for the mammoth legislation has once again been pushed back by several weeks and possibly longer.

While several key issues remain unresolved despite more three years of work on the bill, one of the latest roadblocks is a disagreement about how the federal government should provide a safety net to dairy farmers with GOP House Speaker John Boehner publicly challenging policies long pushed by U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.

The dispute centers on dairy provisions authored by Peterson, who represents Minnesota’s 7th District, that would supplant the current price support system. That system has the federal government step in to buy milk, cheese and butter when prices fall below certain levels.

Peterson wants to establish an insurance program to protect farmers from fluctuations in the cost of feed and what he calls a market stabilization program that would encourage farmers to reduce production when prices drop too far.

“The only thing we’re saying is that if you’re taking government help and the market gets oversupplied and so it starts costing the government money, that that cost should be put on the dairy farmers, not on the taxpayers,” Peterson told MPR News.

Boehner, who once served on the Agriculture Committee alongside Peterson, has long been critical of many aspects of the farm subsidy system, frequently using the epithet “Soviet-style” when referring to dairy policy in particular and also describing Peterson’s policy as “supply management.”

“I’ve fought off the supply and management ideas for 23 years that I have been in Congress, and my position hasn’t changed.  And Mr. Peterson and others are well aware of it,” said Boehner at a press conference on Thursday.

The House ultimately rejected Peterson’s proposals when it passed its version of the farm bill in 2013, but the Senate included them in its version of the bill.

The two bills are currently being reconciled in a conference committee, though that’s mostly meant that the four Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate committees have been negotiating regularly behind closed doors.

Boehner is widely considered to be an ally of big dairy processors, including companies such as Kraft and Nestle, while Peterson’s dairy programs are viewed as a high priority for dairy producers.

Those producers say the old price supports were already inadequate for an industry that has experienced rapidly rising costs over the past decade. Further, because the farm bill expired at the end of December without an extension, there’s no active safety net for farmers.

“If you want to think of jumping off a spring board and landing on the ground because the safety net is on the ground, that’s really where we’re at today,” said Pat Lunemann, the president of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a new farm bill, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will soon have to begin implementing price supports from a 1949 dairy law that could, over time, lead to significant increases in the retail price of milk.

Peterson said he had bent over backward to accommodate concerns about the dairy program by making it voluntary, establishing narrowly defined triggers to ensure the programs would not disrupt the markets and offering to let a dairy stabilization fund expire after three years.

“We already compromised three times on dairy. He’s compromised zero times,” said Peterson. “So that’s the problem.”

Peterson went on to argue that Boehner was the one creating roadblocks for the bill as the Senate bill contained Peterson’s language and all four House and Senate agriculture committee chairs and ranking members had initially signed off on the new dairy programs. House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas, R- Okla., has since sided with Boehner, saying that a final bill cannot make it to the floor without the Speaker’s consent and that it cannot contain the market stabilization program.

“This is not me holding this up, me having this unilateral fight with Boehner,” said Peterson. “This is actually between Boehner and the Senate more than it is between me and Boehner, so I couldn’t fix this if I wanted to.”

Peterson said most of the other outstanding disagreements had been taken care of with the exception of language, initially added by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, that puts limits on farm payments. Other issues that still haven’t been resolved include country of origin labels and whether states can impose rules on other states about production practices.

At this point, the clock is the enemy of the much-delayed farm bill and it appears unlikely the legislation can be finished by early next week. That would make it difficult for the full House or Senate to weigh the legislation before a congressional recess the week of Jan. 20, and lawmakers have been hesitant to announce an agreement without having a vote scheduled within a few days to prevent new disagreements from emerging.

When Congress returns from its recess on Jan. 27, it’s possible that the debate over raising the debt limit could divert legislative attention away from the farm bill.