The odds of Congress passing a farm bill in 2013 are very good, former U.S. agriculture secretaries said, but it will need to be a combined bill that involves both nutrition and farm programs. Former secretaries John Block, Mike Espy, Dan Glickman, Ann Veneman, Mike Johanns and Ed Schafer took part in a roundtable discussion on October 21 at Kansas State University.
The bill, which is to appear before a conference committee consisting of members from both houses, appears to have a tough climb to make, as the two houses have passed distinctly different bills. It also appears to have taken a back seat in recent weeks to other issues, such as health care, the budget and the partial government shutdown that occurred in early October. Espy, who was the first agriculture secretary during Bill Clinton's term as president, said getting a farm bill passed won't be easy, but he believes it will get done. Combining food stamp and farm programs into one bill, like the Senate initially did, will be the key.
"It's central to convince the legislators to reincorporate the nutrition title, which has been stripped out, and reincorporate that into the main commodity program bills. That re-establishes that traditional coalition that served the farm bill deliberations for so long," said Espy.
Urban Democrats with little agricultural background and few farmers as constituents tend to not view farm programs as a top priority, but when you combine the two aspects of the farm bill, "that harmonizes the situation," Espy added.
John Block, agriculture secretary from the Ronald Reagan administration, said he believes a farm bill will pass, because it is less controversial than many of the other top priorities for Congress.
"I think we're going to get a farm bill," said Block. "When you look at all the challenges that the Congress and the president are looking at today with the debt problem, the budget problem, closing down the government, immigration, and the farm bill, the farm bill is the easiest one of those things to solve, and they'll always do the easiest thing. They're going to do the farm bill."
Dan Glickman, Clinton's second secretary of agriculture, agreed with Block, and added that over the past two days, President Barack Obama has stressed that the U.S. needs a new farm bill. But that's where the agreements between Block and Glickman stopped.
"He's not talking about the farm bill. He's talking about the nutrition part of the farm bill. That's all he cares about," Block said.
When Glickman asked if Block spoke to the president about the farm bill, Block said he didn't have to, because he "could read his lips." Glickman, who served in the House of Representatives during Block's tenure as secretary, had made a lighthearted comment earlier in the evening about how he called for Block's resignation.
Of the six secretaries present, only one person has a hand in the making of a 2013 farm bill. Mike Johanns, who served during George W. Bush's administration, currently is a U.S. Senator representing Nebraska and serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee. While he shied away from making specific comments about the farm bill, he did say the hopes of getting a farm bill passed are good, because of the common sense and tenacity agriculture committee members tend to have.
"How many times when you were dealing with a tough issue did you bring the aggies in and say 'folks, we've got to solve this problem?' I would really, really reach out to the House Ag Committee, the Senate Ag Committee, and especially the leadership and the chaiman and the ranking member, because they can put a farm bill together. That's key. We need leadership from all aspects to get a farm bill done," said Johanns.
Schafer, who succeeded Johanns when he left the secretary's position to campaign for a Senate seat, also said he felt the chances of a farm bill getting passed are good. Veneman, Johanns' predecessor, never specifically addressed the 2013 farm bill.
The most recent farm bill, an extension of the 2008 farm bill, expired October 1.