Farm Bill Torn Asunder

August 23, 2013 10:09 PM
Farm Bill Torn Asunder

Politics halt legislative progress yet again 

It’s a different year but basically the same story. While farm policy is typically one of the most bipartisan pieces of legislation, that hasn’t been the case with the 2013 farm bill process—and the chances of that changing yet this year are slim.

The Senate handily approved their version of a new farm bill with several key shifts, compared with their 2012 version. In particular, the Senate bill now includes a target price commodity program known as Adverse Market Payments (AMP), in addition to revenue-based Ag Risk Coverage (ARC). The target crop prices would be set at 2008 levels, except for rice and peanuts, which would receive a boost.

The ARC program still remains the top choice because, based on the Congressional Budget Office assessment, 80% of the outlays under the Senate bill would come through the revenue-based ARC program.

In the House, the farm bill process is riddled with numerous amendments and resulting debate—both in committee and on the floor.

As the bill was being readied for the floor, House Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) expressed confidence that the votes were there for the House to approve the farm bill, "short of interesting things happening on the floor," he said. Guess what? Several interesting things did happen.

First, an amendment on dairy policy from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) stripped the voluntary supply management plan from the package.

At the last minute. Late in the House process, an amendment from Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) and backed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was approved that would allow states to impose work requirements on food stamp recipients. Democrats chafed at the amendment, which showed when the final votes were cast and the bill was defeated 195-234 (171 Republicans and 24 Democrats voting in favor and 62 Republicans and 172 Democrats voting no).

The defeat immediately spurred a search for a way forward, which led to a separate track for the farm policy portions and the nutrition portions. In the end, the farm-policy only bill was approved on a straight party-line vote of 216-208, with no Democrats opting to support the plan.

Ag circles in Washington, D.C., were in a state of shock and disbelief—the decades-standing link in the farm bill between agriculture and nutrition had been broken.

Despite the House’s ultimate vote, Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) chided the House for separating the two elements and blasting the lack of a nutrition title. The White House warned that should the House farm bill arrive on President Barack Obama’s desk, his advisers would recommend a veto.

Another key shift in the House bill comes relative to permanent farm law. The House farm-policy only bill would replace the arcane permanent law provisions (known as the 1938 and 1949 Acts) with the new proposed Commodity Title of the bill, Title 1. That move was opposed by both the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union. This would likely be the first time a House farm bill was passed without the support of the two major farm groups.

Moving forward. As it stands now, the House is scheduled to pull together a nutrition-only bill and get it approved by the chamber in September. Current indications point to the House package cutting $40 billion from the nutrition programs—spending that makes up roughly 80% of USDA outlays under the farm bill. That compares with $20.5 billion in reductions in the failed House farm bill and just $4 billion in the Senate-approved bill.

How will the food stamp funding differences between the House and Senate shake out? The final figure might ultimately have to be decided by congressional leaders, Lucas says.

"This may be one of those issues where the conference committee can work out what each policy really does and the dollar effect on the budget, but then you have to have a little more guidance from on high," Lucas says. "That’s not passing the buck; that’s just saying it’s a tough bridge to cross to achieve consensus."

Sources predict an eventual food stamp funding cut of $10 to $12 billion.

House Ag Committee Ranking Democrat Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) declared the level of reductions to nutri­tion programs a non-starter.

"Adding an additional $20 billion in nutrition cuts, on top of the poison pill nutrition amendments that brought down the Agriculture Committee’s bipartisan farm bill in June, effectively kills any hopes of passing a five-year farm bill this year," Peterson says.

Chances of an extension? So what about an extension, given there are only nine legislative days the House will be in session in September and just 16 for the Senate?

No odds, according to Stabenow and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). But then Stabenow also opposed an extension in 2012, only to agree to one later to avert a sharp rise in milk prices when permanent law provisions would have kicked in at the beginning of 2013.

Stabenow says that is in part due to opposition to continuing direct payments, especially from Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

Still, the odds for an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill exist, but it might not take the shape of a status quo one-year extension. In order to address concerns by Flake and others about continuing direct payments, those might be reformed or even jettisoned if an extension takes place.

Based on the options, the most realistic scenario might be an end-of-session grouping of the farm bill, including food stamp funding, with a continuing resolution for fiscal year 2014 funding and a short-term extension of the debt-limit ceiling. The farm bill savings could then be used for some "pay-fors" regarding other issues.

An extension of the 2008 farm bill is also possible, and as noted, it might take longer than a one-year extension to get the matter on the other side of 2014 elections. The final option is a solo House-Senate farm bill conference report.

Most observers are putting their money on option one or two, noting that Washington can act when it comes to the end of the year.

Politics From All Sides

While political bashing and bluster is nothing new when it comes to legislative initiatives, what is new, based on media accounts, is when a farm group president says she was given permission by her corn grower members "to use swear words" with House members if it was necessary to
get the point across.

To make her case, National Corn Growers Association President Pam Johnson says her members would tell Congress: "We are mad as hell. We are not going to take this anymore. We are going to hold you accountable."

Seldom heard from during the farm bill process, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack waded into the political waters as well, expressing his opposition to an extension. "Extensions are an acknowledgment of failure," he said. "We need five years of certainty. This is not just a farm bill. This is a jobs bill and a food bill." Vilsack went so far as to say farmers need to set aside their "rural politeness" and demand action from lawmakers, labeling it a "silly notion" for House leaders to strip the nutrition title from the bill.

On CBS’s "Face the Nation," host Bob Schieffer chimed in and said that the House Republicans passed a bill providing "welfare for the wealthy" while leaving the poor to fend for themselves. 

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