U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson is "hopeful" that a bipartisan group of senior Congressional lawmakers can come to agreement soon after a missing a self-imposed deadline to wrap up a package of major cuts to agriculture programs totaling $23 billion over the next decade.
"We've made a lot of progress," said Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.
Also involved in the discussions are Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., the committee's chairman, and Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Pat Roberts, R-Kan., their Senate counterparts.
The four had given themselves a Nov. 1 deadline last month, when they wrote the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the "super committee," to promise the $23 billion in cuts. Peterson said an agreement could be announced Friday.
The super committee is tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in long-term budget savings across the entire federal government by Thanksgiving.
If the agriculture quartet's effort succeeds, it will amount to a high-speed rewrite of the nation's farm programs with almost no input from the public, the Obama administration or other lawmakers.
According to published reports, subsidy programs will take the biggest hit with $15 billion worth of cuts. Conservation and nutrition programs will each see $4 billion worth of reductions over the next decade.
After the super committee was established, Peterson publicly fretted that "ideological" members of the super committee would make deep cuts to agricultural spending.
Faced with inevitable reductions, the quartet of lawmakers chose to team up to make the super committee an offer it couldn't refuse: major cuts to farm programs with the blessing of agriculture's most-powerful supporters in Congress.
"Generally the idea is, we'll get rid of direct payments," said Peterson, referring to a program that paid out to farmers irrespective of crop prices or actual production. Liberals and conservatives alike pointed to direct payments, which totaled $266 million to Minnesota farmers in 2010, as everything that was wrong with U.S. farm policy.
But Peterson confirmed that while direct payments are going away as part of the proposal under negotiation, they will likely be supplanted by a new income support program that some in the agricultural community refer to as "shallow loss."
"We'll pay them on what they actually plant and they'll only get paid if things are bad," Peterson said. "So if things are good, there will be no government payments."
That the creation of a new program could become part of the super committee's recommendation to Congress infuriates some members of Congress, particularly because one of the committee's "super" powers is the ability to bring legislation directly to the floor of both chambers without amendment. The committee's legislation is also immune to a Senate filibuster, which means it requires just 51 votes to pass the upper chamber.
"A lot of these [issues] are complicated and should be fully vetted in the Congress, especially when it comes to creating any new programs," said Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis. "This joint committee is not the vehicle to do it in."
Kind and a bipartisan group of 26 other lawmakers, including Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, have sent the super committee a letter urging it to not include any new agriculture programs in the committee's final proposal.
The proposal's focus on revenue protection also worries long-time critics of agriculture subsidies. A new study sponsored by the non-profit Environmental Working Group, which opposes agricultural subsidies, found that costs for another federal revenue insurance program for farmers have tripled since 2000.
"At a time when the agriculture economy is white-hot, providing additional billions of dollars to benefit the richest of corporate agriculture businesses is indefensible," said Craig Cox, EWG's senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources.
Peterson rejected the charge that the House and Senate Agriculture Committees were acting in secret, arguing that the super committee asked every House and Senate committee to offer suggestions for cuts.
"I was not a big fan of the super committee but Congress passed it, the President signed it," Peterson said." It asked the committees to do this, we did it, we're the only committee that did. Ron Kind's committee didn't come up with anything."
Representatives of agriculture industry and interest groups concerned with agriculture say the past few weeks has been dizzying and rumor-filled due to the tight deadline and high-stakes budget cutting.
"This is a process that's unlike anything we've ever done in the past," said Jon Doggett, the chief Washington lobbyist for the National Corn Growers Association. "I think that the Ag Committee leadership has been, well maybe not transparent, at least been opaque. The Joint Committee has done almost all of their deliberations behind closed doors."
When asked if his association supported the concepts behind the proposal being crafted by Peterson and the other lawmakers, Doggett said his response would have to wait until there was an actual proposal to read.