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Budget pressure on farm bill will be 'horrendous'

Farmers harvest soybeans Tuesday east and west of Willmar.

FARGO, N.D. -- House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., faces a tough task of justifying and delivering an adequate farm program -- anything comparable to the expiring, popular 2008 farm bill -- in the midst of a tightening budget.

Lucas, who was elected to Congress in 1994 and took over as chairman in 2010 from Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., recently participated in a roundtable discussion in Fargo, N.D.

Chiefly, participants wanted to urge Lucas to preserve crop insurance and other farm bill provisions as he grapples with budget cutting proponents, which could include him. He is a member of the Republican Study Committee, which is at the forefront of budget-cutting efforts. He voted for the so-called "Ryan budget," in April 2011, which would cut trillions in spending over the next decade.

Budget cutting is dominating farm bill discussions.

Leaders of the agriculture committees in the House and Senate offered a proposal to a bipartisan budget supercommittee last December, but that project ended without a compromise. Lucas says he wanted the farm bill to be passed before 2011 drought costs were added into the cost mix. Failing that, he now predicts the farm bill will "go back to regular order" with full committee markups, followed by exposure to full floor debate.

He says the proposals will likely not be "dramatically different" than those in that proposal, because "there are only so many ways you can reinvent the wheel."

"If we are able to let a farm bill (pass) that achieves $23 billion in savings ... we'll be 'luck-y' people," he said, drawing out the word lucky and knocking twice on the table for emphasis.

The budget pressure will be "horrendous" when the issue comes up again, Lucas says.

He expects the Senate to move first on the farm bill, and then the House Agriculture Committee will follow. "I just want to be able to get to a point, in an idealistic world, where we -- as Congress --could put a bill on the president's desk before he goes out in the fall."

If that fails, he'd pass something in a lame duck session after the election.

"If I could extend the 2008 farm bill by one year, I'd hope you'd be with me, because I'd move both heaven and earth to do it, and preserve the (budget) baseline," Lucas says. "With the budget numbers being where they are, I don't think that's a case."

Lucas is committed to a heavy focus on crop insurance, with some kind of revenue program for most crops.

Scott Tewksbury, president of Heartland State Bank of Edgeley, N.D., representing the Independent Community Banks of North Dakota, asked Lucas to continue strong support for crop insurance, and to promote the Farm Service Agency loan programs, which he says are "vitally important" despite the good times in agriculture. He says federal regulations cost his bank 30 to 40 percent of his entire overhead.

The U.S. farm bill is going away from direct payments, which have become politically unpopular here because the payments are made whether farmers are doing well or not. Lucas notes the rest of the world is going toward the system to be compliant with the World Trade Organization.

Similarly, Ed Schafer, former U.S. agriculture secretary and former North Dakota governor, said he was excited by the current farm program climate because the country is being forced to contend with fiscal realities that were there during the past farm bill discussion, when he was in Washington, and tried to implement reforms.

Lucas notes that of the 46 members on the Agriculture Committee, 23 in this session have never been on the committee before. He estimates that 40 percent of the committee members are there because of social nutrition programs included in the farm bill, which account for 75 percent of its spending. Another 40 percent are there because of their ties to production agriculture, and another 20 percent are there primarily because of conservation interests.

When the bill is considered on the House floor, a substantial number on the right won't want to spend money for "any reason" and a substantial number on the left "are not particularly fond of spending in rural America."

Lucas expects the bill to be subjected to "more amendments than we've ever been subjected to before," because of an openness policy from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "A good number of them will come from members who have no earthly clue what the impact will be, of their language," he says. "It'll be a struggle."

Mikkel Pates writes for Grand Forks, N.D.-based Agweek, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.