By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- A total of 17 witnesses from farm, commodity, crop insurance and credit groups largely agreed on the agenda for the next farm bill at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing Tuesday, but there were differences over conservation compliance requirements for crop insurance eligibility and payment limits.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a rare committee appearance to introduce the president of the Kentucky Farm Bureau, and he said he was looking forward to writing a new farm bill in 2018. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told McConnell 2017 "would be better."
"The sooner the better," McConnell replied.
The representatives from commodity groups, general farm organizations, crop insurance and credit were unified in their defense of crop insurance. They also sought to increase loan limits at USDA for farmers who are having a hard time finding credit.
It was in this vein of defense of crop insurance that Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., pointed out that the president's nominee for USDA undersecretary of research, education and economics, had once questioned the constitutionality of crop insurance when he was running for the U.S. Senate in 2014. Stabenow said she was worried that crop-insurance opponents would use Clovis' statements to undercut the program. A coalition of 22 farm groups has endorsed Clovis, largely because he seems to have the ear of the president.
Stabenow, however, told the commodity producers that it's important everyone work together to make sure the resources are there for crop insurance. At her prodding, they all agreed that crop insurance is constitutional and must be preserved.
Roberts seemed surprised at Stabenow's disclosure about Clovis. "If there is some nominee who is coming before the committee who says crop insurance is unconstitutional, they might as well not show up," he said.
The White House officially sent Clovis' nomination to the Senate late Tuesday.
After the hearing, Roberts said it's too early to say whether the Trump administration should withdraw the nomination, adding that Clovis should have the opportunity to explain "why in the hell he said that."
Roberts added he had received assurances from White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney that "we are not going to cut crop insurance."
Roberts also signaled an interest in revisiting the issue of whether farmers should have to prove they are complying with USDA conservation rules in order to get subsidized premiums. That provision, included in the 2014 farm bill when Stabenow chaired the committee to get environmentalists to support the bill, was "costly and unneeded," Roberts said. Several witnesses agreed that the provision had made life hard for farmers, but under questioning from Stabenow, they had a hard time coming up with examples of farmers who had actually lost their crop insurance eligibility over the issue.
Southern farmers also testified in favor of ending payment limitations on farm bill payments, saying that strict payment limits, especially on certain family members, could force them out of business.
But Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who has pushed for payment limits for years, said that the organizations that are complaining about payment limits were part of an effort in 2014 "to thwart my reforms."
Giving non-farmers payments is "indefensible," and making unlimited subsidy payments shifts risk to the taxpayers, Grassley said.
"For the life of me," Grassley said, he could not understand why a payment limit of $125,000 per person or $250,000 for a married couple doubled for peanut growers "is not enough."
"Why do we leave loopholes in place that leave us open for ridicule?" Grassley asked.
Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at email@example.com
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