N.D. delegation keeps eyes on farm bill, budget

Passage of a farm bill and positioning the federal government for the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 will be the focus of North Dakota’s congressional delegation when the session resumes next week.

Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Congressman Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., all were in Minot Tuesday for various events as they sought to connect with constituents over the congressional recess.

Passage of a farm bill is his priority, said Hoeven, who will serve on the conference committee looking to find a House and Senate consensus on legislation. Before conferencing can begin, though, the House must pass its bill.

Cramer said the House divided the farm and nutrition program sections of the bill and has passed the farm provisions. The House has yet to consider a 10-year, $760 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program bill, which contains $20 billion in savings and changes in the way the program operates, Cramer said. For instance, the bill eliminates the automatic qualification for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, once a person qualifies for any other assistance program.

Cramer said passage of a nutrition program and referral to conference committee should occur next week. A final bill could be enacted “if not by the end of September, certainly early October,” he said.

“That, however, is starting to look like the easy lift these days,” Cramer said, referring to tougher issues that include the budget.

The delegation isn’t counting on quick action on a budget. Heitkamp and Cramer spoke of the likelihood of a continuing resolution, which would enable the government to operate while work on the budget continues after Oct. 1. The federal government also is projected to hit its $16.7 trillion debt ceiling in mid-October, creating a need for Congress to consider raising the ceiling again.

Asked at a public forum in Minot about the possibility of excluding Social Security from deficit reduction discussion, Cramer noted that Congress will have to find ways to keep Social Security and Medicare solvent into the future without harming people who are nearing retirement.

Social Security remains solvent for some time into the future, which gives Congress more options for adjustments but also reduces the pressure on Congress to act, he said.

“If we wait until it’s closer to where it is no longer solvent, the fix will have to be very dramatic,” Cramer said.

The situation is more urgent in Medicare, which faces insolvency in 12 years, he said.

“The problem is politics,” he said. “We are scared to talk about it.”

Other issues on the table in Congress include comprehensive immigration reform and tax reform. President Obama also is due to deliver a proposal for military intervention in Syria to Congress next week.

Heitkamp and Hoeven list energy issues at the top of their personal agendas in looking toward legislation in new session. Both have been pushing for regulatory approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry Canadian oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast and would provide some capacity for Bakken crude.

Heitkamp said the biggest energy challenge, though, is the war being waged against electrical power generated by coal. She said that instead of discouraging use of coal as a dirty fuel, the nation needs to encourage development of technology to capture carbon emissions and create a clean fuel.

While in Minot, Heitkamp met with Minot State University representatives to discuss education financing. Heitkamp said graduates of private colleges carry a disproportionate share of student debt and commonly are delinquent. To address this issue, the government is considering accountability standards, which could affect public institutions, too, she said.

“We want to make sure that the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act does, in fact, work for all of the North Dakota institutions,” she said.