Members of a legislative panel agreed that time works against passing a pre-election farm bill.

“I think we need to reflect on the challenges we face if we are not successful,” said Jim Miller, senior policy advisor to the Senate Budget Committee for Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

“I’m optimistic that if we can get to the point where we can put the decision before the House and Senate we can get a bill that will help rural America and the nation,” Miller said. “It will require difficult decisions, and nutrition will be a contentious issue.”

He said assumptions that passing a farm bill would be easier in 2013 might not be accurate. The Senate, he said, will lose some key, moderate members following the election. Replacements might or might not be willing to work across the aisle, but even if they are, they will be new.

He also said the past two years have shown that “enacting anything comes with a cost, demands for savings in some program to get something done. What’s ahead for agriculture? Will we pay up front and then be obligated to pay more in 2013?”

Miller said the historic reason for a farm bill has been to “provide certainty for farmers and ranchers. If we keep kicking the can down the road, we’re not creating certainty for farmers and ranchers, and we’re not creating certainty for Rural America. We have to find a way to get this done.”

Matt Schertz, majority staff director for the Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management for Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, said a farm bill “needs to provide options. That seems logical. So, why is it so tough?

“Fundamental differences,” he said, between various farm bill proposals make it hard to come to a consensus. “Often, the priorities of one commodity group conflicts with the priorities of other commodity groups. And we are trying to put together a package that works for everyone. We try to take the best ideas and put them into one program. No one gets everything he wants, but no one gets left out in the cold.”

Schertz said he “remains optimistic that we will get a farm bill. The timing is uncertain.”

(See more on 2012 farm bill developments by clicking here).

Bart Fischer, chief economist of the House Ag Committee, said trying to develop one program that works for all creates challenges. He said a “shallow loss” option seems to be more popular for Midwest farmers. He also noted that the $50,000 per individual payment limitation included in the Senate’s farm bill proposal works for small farmers but leaves larger operations with too little protection.

He said a recurring question during farm bill debates has been: “What if we’re wrong?” about commodity prices staying high. “What if they don’t stay up but go into a sustained decline? Every single farm (in a survey) would be better off with the House plan. The role of the federal government in a farm bill has to be to protect against drastic loss.”

Lucas said a farm bill should not be designed to make a good year the best year ever, but to offer protection “when the trap door shuts.”

Fischer said nutrition “is driving the farm bill process in the House. “The Speaker is not convinced he has the votes to pass it, and nutrition is the reason.”

He said time is a huge factor in getting a bill done before the election. “We have only 8 legislative days in September.”

Panelists say a lame duck session after the election is a possibility but the program “would be virtually impossible to put into place in 2013. It would make sense, even now, to pass an extension or transition bill to allow time to write regulations and put them in place.

“I don’t see a doomsday scenario,” Fischer said.

Panelists said maintaining a strong crop insurance program was essential. “A key point was to ‘do no harm’ to crop insurance,” Fischer said.

Miller said Congress possibly could make the farm bill simpler, “but not and represent all the commodities and interests.”

When asked if the nutrition title could be removed from the farm titles and passed separately his answer was precise and to the point. “No.”

rsmith@farmpress.com