WASHINGTON — Although a final deal has not been struck, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, expects Congress will complete work on a new farm bill this month.
“There is a chance that maybe we don’t get a farm bill, but I have every reason to think we are going to get one,” Crawford said in an interview Tuesday.
Crawford is a member of a conference committee hashing out differences between competing House and Senate bills. A meeting has been scheduled Wednesday for the top leaders of the conference: Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
“We should know more after that,” Crawford said.
Crawford spoke Tuesday afternoon with Lucas, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, and came away feeling that progress has been made on some of the thornier issues separating lawmakers on a renewing federal farm and nutrition assistance policies.
“The chairman is encouraged by the dynamic that appeared to be materializing. He seems cautiously optimistic,” Crawford said.
He also said there are indications House Republican leaders see a deal may be struck.
There appears to be some optimism for a budget deal between the House and Senate, which would necessarily rely on savings realized from a new farm bill. And, House Republican leaders have added a “legislative day” to the 2013 calendar — an indication that they see a need for additional session time next week, Crawford said.
Without a farm bill in place by the end of the year, the nation’s farm policies will revert to the 1949 law, which would result in a major increase in milk prices among other things.
Crawford has focused most of his attention on two issues important to Arkansas — providing a workable safety net to southern growers and protecting the domestic catfish industry.
He expects the conference will agree to provide a choice to farmers between crop insurance and price supports. Rice growers, who rely on irrigation, favor price supports that were included in a House-approved bill.
Crawford expects the conference will side with the Senate on a provision that will leave catfish inspections to the U.S. Department of Agriculture rather than the Food and Drug Administration as called for in the House bill. USDA inspection would benefit southern catfish growers over foreign competitors.
Among the biggest issues the conference has to resolve is how deeply they will cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The House proposal was $40 billion over a decade while the Senate proposed $4 billion.
Crawford said that the final proposal would likely top $10 billion but just barely. The figure would provide substantial enough cuts to satisfy most House Republicans without necessarily turning away every Democrat.
“Beyond that would be a stretch,” he said.