Kansas' senior Senator, Pat Roberts, has been around for seven Farm Bills, but he still has room to be impressed with the process that resulted in the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 that passed the Senate Agriculture Committee Thursday.
"We marked that up in four and half hours," Roberts said. "It usually takes two, maybe three days. We worked together. There was not a harsh word spoken, not a partisan word uttered. Everybody, even those who voted "no", congratulated us on how the process went. I think that sends a message: The Ag Committee in the Senate is the least partisan committee in Congress."
Roberts said he is overall pleased with the bill that moved out of committee, though he realizes that they will be amendments and that something still needs to be done to address the concerns of peanut and rice producers.
"We will be looking for ways to make adjustments that will work for those growers," Roberts said.
The Senate bill streamlines programs, eliminating 96 different Farm Bill programs while strengthening and improving crop insurance, the program that farmers resoundingly said they consider the most critical. The bill saves about $23 billion over the current Farm Bill, Roberts said, a number that has been borne out by Congressional Budget Office scoring.
"We have put a lot of time into this. Committee members and staff did their homework. The chairwoman was great to work with. She is very good, very determined to get this done right. I very pleased with the work our staff. Everybody did a great job."
The next hurdle is getting the bill onto the floor of the Senate and Roberts said he is hopeful that will go quickly.
"We had talked to (Senate President) Harry Reid about getting it on the floor if we had a strong vote out of committee, and a bipartisan one. We did that. Now we push for getting it on the floor."
Roberts said the House Ag Committee, which held its final field hearing last Friday, may have a harder time getting a bill put together.
"(Chairman) Frank (Lucas) has more new members, a lot of them freshmen from 2010, and that group has held together," he said. "He is also more committed to target prices and we just don't think that works in today's world. The reality is today's farmers are diversified and they want to plant to the market, not to the program. You raise target prices, you risk distorting planting decisions in favor of the program. "
Roberts said there were concessions on some titles, all made with the knowledge that the budget had to be considered and that the clock is ticking.
"We all know that we have to pass a Farm Bill this session," he said. "If the current bill expires, we have to either pass an extension or revert back to the 1949 program. We don't know that an extension would pass and a reversion back to the 1949 bill just isn't something we can let happen."
Roberts said he expects amendments on the Nutrition Title, which the bill cuts by $4 billion.
"There is one line of thought that we could cut more," he said. "It is such a huge program. The error rate in Food Stamps is half of the whole commodity title. But nutrition is a Democrat red line, just like my red line was crop insurance."
Roberts said his goal is to close any loopholes that encourage waste or fraud in the program, while preserving the safety net for those people who find themselves in need as a result of the deep recession and the slow economic recovery.
"It's a given that we need to grow the economy as fast as we can," he said. "But that's a whole different matter that we can't address in this bill. We can address issues such as the dual eligibility – if you are eligible for one program, you are automatically eligible for food stamps."
At the same time, he said, you can't have a program as big as food stamps and not have some losses to fraud or abuse.
"We just have to figure out the best ways to keep it to a minimum," he said, "But discussion of reform needs to take place on the floor, not in committee, We've done our job; now we need to get to the floor. And we need the House to act so we can get down to conference committee."
And that is the point, the senator says, "when this thing is really going to get interesting."