Farm bill: Conferees reach a food-stamp agreement while milk, catfish gum up the works

Congress had hoped to wrap up a five- or ten-year agreement on the fate of the farm bill last summer, well before its now-expired deadline at the start of the new year, but contention over the price tag of the federal food-stamp program — in which total enrollment has grown by more than seventy percent in the past five years alone, by the way — meant that consensus just wasn’t in the cards at the time.

The Democrat-controlled Senate was gunning for a version that cut the program by a mere $400 million annually, while the House was looking for something along the lines of between a $2 billion to a $4 billion annual cut — a range with which the White House was most definitively not on board. The lawmakers currently conferring on a version amenable to both chambers have found a number that they hope will appease both, but in the meantime, there are other and agricultural-related pieces of corporate pork kicking up their own dust. Via the NYT:

Lawmakers working on a new farm bill appear to have reached an agreement on cuts to the food stamp program, which had been the most contentious issue in efforts to pass the legislation. But disagreements over a program to help dairy producers when milk prices drop and over a catfish inspection office at the Agriculture Department have emerged as major sticking points in the negotiations, which were expected to be wrapped up this week, according to people briefed on the talks.

Those people said on Thursday that a deal had been reached to cut about $9 billion over 10 years from the food stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The cuts are more than twice the $4 billion approved by the Democratic-led Senate in May, but far less than the nearly $40 billion in cuts passed by the Republican-controlled House in its bill. …

The [dairy] program, which limits dairy supplies to help bolster the price of milk, is generally opposed by conservatives. Mr. Boehner and Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia, called it a “Soviet style” government bureaucracy that distorts the market.

Both the catfish and dairy programs are just different forms of protectionism for highly niche interests: The $20 million catfish inspection program is essentially a trade barrier to protect domestic catfish producers, mostly in the South, from foreign competition (and it has yet to actually start inspecting catfish), and the highly regulated and subsidized dairy market is basically a federally-sponsored racket that deters innovation and competition and helps to keep dairy prices high. Both can easily stand to be eliminated, but special interests rarely if ever go gently into that good night, and lawmakers fond of the status quo aren’t keen on the accompanying fuss. Via Politico:

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas conceded Thursday that final action on a farm bill conference report is now likely to slip into late January — a major blow to himself and an ominous turn for the bill itself.

“It needs to be done as soon as possible but the issues are of such magnitude I can’t go until I get the issues addressed,” Lucas said. The Oklahoma Republican admitted to immense frustration — and some surprise — at the full dimensions of the standoff now between Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Lucas’s own ranking Democrat, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, over dairy policy.

“I don’t know that I understood how just hard the positions were by the two interested parties,” Lucas said in a hallway interview. “No one has shown any flexibility whatsoever.”