FARGO – While House lawmakers on Capitol Hill began marking up their version of the 2012 farm bill on Wednesday, North Dakota’s congressional candidates each held discussions with Fargo-area farmers and ranchers to gather insight on what stakeholders want out of the final bill.
It was the first time Republican Kevin Cramer publicly outlined his views on the farm bill.
His silence had drawn criticism from Democrat Pam Gulleson, who alleged Cramer was more worried about appeasing national political supporters than standing up for legislation benefiting North Dakota.
Cramer has received endorsements from two highly influential conservative groups – the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks for America – both of which are on record in opposition to federal farm policies.
Cramer said he felt Wednesday was the right time to broach the subject on the campaign trail, given the House Agriculture Committee’s mark-up of the bill that same day.
“For me, to make it a harshly partisan issue, I don’t think is beneficial to my campaign nor to the dialogue,” Cramer said.
As for his high-profile endorsements, Cramer said he told both the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks that he supports farm policy.
“Frankly, I thought my position on agriculture was going to be the reason I didn’t get those endorsements, but we did have a discussion on that, and I pushed pretty hard,” Cramer said. “I said, ‘Guys, the reality in America and the reality in North Dakota is that every country is going to protect its food supply, at least every sophisticated country in the world does that.”
The current farm law expires Sept. 30. If new legislation isn’t passed by then, Congress would need to pass a temporary extension in order to continue funding the nation’s agricultural and nutrition programs.
Cramer and Gulleson both favor the Senate’s version of the bill, which saves about $2.3 billion a year. But they disagree on the House’s deeper spending cuts of $3.5 billion annually.
Gulleson said the House’s approach “has me a bit concerned.”
“The Senate version is the strongest version,” she said. “It’s defensible in terms of addressing targets to reduce deficit, but it doesn’t take as deep of cuts.”
But Cramer said he likes that the House’s initial bill promotes more fiscal responsibility, focusing cuts on nutrition programs.
“Those savings are not on the backs of farmers and ranchers, but rather would come from what has become a perpetual welfare state that we cannot continue to support,” Cramer said. “The pushback from liberals on the deeper cuts in the nutrition programs illustrates how out of touch they are with the economic challenges of our country.”
When asked what he would say to individuals who depend on aid like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, Cramer said: “You shouldn’t be dependent on a government program. That’s not the way our system is built.”
“We’re at a time now where one out of seven people are on food stamps in this country,” Cramer added. “I say: Come to North Dakota and look for work. We know how to do it here.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 61,000 North Dakotans were getting food stamps, as of June 29. That equals nine percent of the state’s population.
The Associated Press reports that the House’s version of the farm bill finds most of its savings – $1.6 billion a year – from tightening eligibility rules and ending abuses in SNAP. In comparison, the Senate’s farm bill cuts $400 million in annual SNAP funding.
The discussions Wednesday held by Cramer and Gulleson offered similar positions from regional agricultural stakeholders.
Many praised the Senate’s farm bill but offered caution on one provision it carries. A late amendment to the Senate bill aims to tie crop insurance to farmers’ compliance with federal conservation programs, a “deal-killer” for many North Dakota producers, Cramer said.
“They know their business, and while they appreciate the safety net – and the robust crop insurance program provides it –they are not interested in having a lot of strings attached to it,” Cramer said. “They’re not interested in Washington telling them how to farm.”
Crop insurance was also a consistent topic at Gulleson’s discussion.
Speaking as a lifelong farmer and rancher from southeastern North Dakota, Gulleson called crop insurance a critical component to the farm bill.
“It’s the ability to stem the tide against disaster and low prices; that’s the key parts,” Gulleson said.
Gulleson has been an outspoken supporter of farm policy throughout her campaign. She repeated her message of urgency Wednesday that Congress should pass the next farm bill before the September deadline.
For the most part, the 2012 farm bill has bipartisan agreement in the House Agriculture Committee, where it’s likely to get approval this summer.
However, the legislation isn’t a designated priority for House Republican leadership, who are reportedly wary to bring the bill up for a final vote.
Former North Dakota governor and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said Wednesday he doesn’t expect anything to come to the House floor this year.
“Then we’re looking at an extension. … That’ll be a big battle,” Schafer said. “If Congress can’t get their work done and they extend that bill another year, it’s not agriculture’s fault.”