After engaging with President Barack Obama in what he described as a “polite” discussion about the sequester on Friday, House Speaker John Boehner headed home to his 8th Congressional District and continued a tradition he started 22 years ago: meeting with farmers.
“I served on the Agriculture Committee for 16 years. Even though I have a little different job these days, I still have a close relationship with Frank Lucas and the Ag committee because these are the issues I grew up with and, frankly, I care quite a bit about,” Boehner explained.
Boehner focused most of his comments on the nation’s fiscal challenges and sequestration, which will require $44 billion in cuts to budget outlays throughout the rest of this fiscal year. However, he also responded to several farm policy questions from the crowd of about 200 farmers, agribusiness leaders and locals who gathered in an auditorium in Edison Community College.
The Ohio Republican acknowledged that sequestration “is not the smartest way to cut spending. That’s why last year, the House acted twice to replace the sequester with cuts in mandatory spending….what I would call much smarter, more targeted reductions in spending.
The president also acknowledged on Friday that spending cuts mandated by the sequester were “dumb” and “arbitrary” but blamed congressional Republicans for their failure to agree to higher taxes and other spending cuts to replace the sequester.
“As I told the president once again yesterday, we all know what the problem is,” Boehner said. “We have runaway spending on the mandatory spending side that has to be dealt with it.
“I’ve been over there 22 years. I’ve watched presidents of both parties kick this can down the road…..and I made up my mind two years ago they weren’t going to do it any more,” Boehner said as the crowd broke into the one of several rounds of applause he received during his opening comments.
Boehner said the House will pass a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government from March 27 to Sept. 30. Included in that resolution will be an agreement on the Department of Defense appropriation and the military construction and veterans affairs appropriations bill which will give those agencies much more flexibility than what they have today under the CR.
“Also included in this bill will be a reprograming authority which will allow agencies to come to Congress and ask to reprogram cuts from one account to another to make sure the cuts are in areas where they can be made as opposed to more vital services.”
With that kind of authority, agencies like USDA would potentially have the flexibility to avoid furloughing meat inspectors or other “vital” personnel by cutting from other parts of the agency’s budget.
Speaker Boehner expressed a great deal of optimism that the House and Senate will be able to come together and pass a new five-year farm bill in 2013.
After the House failed to pass a farm bill last year, a farmer asked if “Congress will be in the same boat this year?”
“I hope not,” Boehner chuckled. “I’ve talked to the Chair and ranking member of the Agriculture Committee and I’m very hopeful we will get a farm bill this year.
But when pressed about what has changed in the 113th Congress that makes him more optimistic regarding farm bill passage this year as compared to last, the speaker provided few specifics.
“Hope springs eternal in my world,” he said. “I’m hopeful that they will be able to come to some agreement.
“It’s been a rather contentious issue – not because of the farm issues, but because 80 percent of the farm bill (spending) is nutrition programs. Some things went on in 2009 and 2010 that greatly expanded the food stamp program. There is a lot of fraud in the program and it needs to be dealt with. Some of our members want to deal with it, others don’t. I think that’s been the biggest impediment to getting the farm bill, but I’m optimistic that we will get a farm bill this year.
The speaker said there are 18 million more people on food stamps compared to four years ago because of the new eligibility requirements.
“American people don’t mind seeing their hard-earned money being spent to provide a safety net, but they surely hate to see people take advantage of their hard-earned tax dollars.
Boehner also acknowledged his recent talks on dairy policy with Collin Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat who serves as the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Asked if there has been any agreement reached with Peterson on how to proceed with proposed reforms to dairy policy, Boehner said, “I don’t know that we’ve reached an agreement. Mr. Peterson is well aware of my concerns about the supply management provisions that he authored in last year’s farm bill and I hope they won’t be part of this year’s farm bill.
Boehner served on the Agriculture Committee in 1996 when members first approved “Freedom to Farm,” and created the direct payment program which decoupled planting decisions from government payments. Asked about his views on decoupling in the next farm bill, Boehner suggested it was best to let the House and Senate Agriculture Committees work out the details.
“Last year at Farm Forum I got involved in a discussion about the dairy program that wasn’t planned and made more news than I intended to make. I’ll leave it to the Ag committees,” he explained.
During last year’s forum, Boehner described problems with dairy policy that he described as “the most convoluted program you’ve ever seen” and suggested that Peterson had tried to convolute it even more.
Asked about the future of crop insurance, which is not subject to the sequester, but has been the target of some budget cutters, Boehner offered a great deal of support.
“Over the last 15 years, crop insurance is where we have been trying to help move farmers in terms of taking advantage of risk management tools for their crops.
“It is still the central focus of where we think farmers ought to be able to have easy access to insure their crops and insure some type of revenue out of it. It makes the most sense to me and always has.
“I would expect you will continue to see crop insurance as the central safety net for those in agriculture,” Boehner emphasized.
And what about potential cuts in crop insurance?
“I think crop insurance is solid. Every five years when we look at the farm bill. People go in and will look at what changes have to be made. There continues to be a problem in some parts of the country with those who take advantage of the crop insurance program.
“Just like anything else, where you have a big pot of money, you’ll have people trying to steal it. And we always need more attempts at cracking down on those who cheat.”
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