The House of Representatives is not in session today, but leaders of the farm bill conference committee are working to find com­promise.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., says the conference committee’s work could be completed by Thanksgiving. That may be optimistic considering the major differences between the two bills and between the two parties. 

Stabenow notes that funding for food stamps for the coming year fell by $5 billion with the end of the stimulus program last Friday, and that the saving over the next 10 years will total $11 billion.

She wants to take that $11 billion and add in the $4 billion in actual cuts the Senate passed and argue that proposed “savings” now total $15 billion. Conference com­mittee members from the House say that won’t fly, since ending the stimulus spending is not part of the farm bill reforms and was unbudgeted spending to begin with.

The House-Senate budget conference committee is under pressure to at least set top-line spending levels for fiscal 2014 by Thanksgiving.

Leaders of the Appropriations Committees in both houses need this information so they can begin work on bills for the different govern­mental agencies. They also hope the conference committee can agree on spending levels for fiscal 2015.

Appropriations bills for fiscal 2015 need to be completed by next September to avoid the use of those “continuing resolutions” that have become common practice in recent years. The budget conference committee is trying to find ways to replace across-the-board “seques­ter” spending cuts with a more targeted process that addresses specific needs.

The conference committee will resume work next week and is charged with finalizing a compromise budget by December 15.

Other news from Washington:

  • USDA has announced the U.S. will open its market to imports of beef from Europe. The U.S. market has been closed to EU beef for 16 years due to the BSE outbreak there. The pro­posed rule will bring the U.S. in line with international, science-based animal health standards. The new rule will go into effect in about 90 days. We note the EU still bans imports of U.S. beef produced with growth hormones. Meat and poultry trade are one of the main issues being debated in the efforts to develop a free trade agreement between the U.S. and the EU.
  • Retail sales of food labeled “natural” totaled more than $40 billion over the last 12 months, with a survey indicating that more than half of Americans look for “all natural” products when food shopping. But there is no clear definition of what qualifies as “natural”! A food label­ing bill has been introduced in the Senate that would require EPA to establish a standard nutrition labeling system, including a clear definition of what qualifies as “natural”. However, any changes to the current system will take a year or more to get through the process.
  • USDA is seeking input on how to improve communication and collaboration among the people involved in diverse agricultural systems. The goal is to improve the relationship be­tween traditional agriculture producers, organic producers and producers of identity preserved crops. Comments will be accepted through January 3, 2014. You may submit comments by visiting the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal or sending your comments through the postal service to: Docket No. APHIS–2013–0047, Regulatory Analysis and Development, PPD, APHIS, Station 3A–03.8, 4700 River Road Unit 118, Riverdale, MD 20737–1238.
  • The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) has approved a new rule designed to limit speculation by traders in certain commodities after the previous rule was thrown out by a court. CFTC provided more justification for why the rule is needed and an improved cost-benefit analysis (the shortcoming of the previous rule pointed out by the court). But the new rule will almost certainly next be challenged in court by the financial services industry. Thus, no changes in position limits are expected in the short term – if ever.