Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Farm Bill Update: Will Coming House Ag Committee Bill Have Enough Votes for Floor Passage?

07:10AM Apr 19, 2013
Untitled Document

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Food snap funding, implementation issues are key | Senate will likely want House to go first this time

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

Things are finally beginning to “move” on the lingering new farm bill debate.

House timeline. Markup of a farm bill in the House Ag Committee is planned for May 15, House Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) told the Washington publication Politico.

But House Majority Leader Cantor, other GOP leaders have some stipulations. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), in remarks to Politico, wants Lucas to hold off on the farm bill markup effort. Even Lucas acknowledged pressure from Republican leadership on that matter. “They suggested I take a little more time,” Lucas said of a meeting Thursday with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and his top staff. “I said I wanted to go May 15 but would be happy to hold the listening sessions to hear what my colleagues think.”

The pressure from leadership is focused on the situation with nutrition programs – an issue long expected to be the critical one that will eventually decide whether a new farm bill is even possible – not out of the Ag panels in the House and Senate, but on the floors of both chambers.

Politico spoke with Cantor following the meeting and said that Lucas was “working on” the May 15 markup start. “I just think that we need to look at all things right now in terms of the imperative to get the fiscal situation straight.” Cantor said. “Certainly there is enough body of evidence that there are error rates and there are other points in these [food nutrition] programs that the GAO (Government Accountability Office) has consistently pointed out that we can address and actually save some money and make sure the benefits get to the people who really need them and get rid of the abuse.”

Record use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and reports of 1 percent of the funds distributed by the program are subject to fraud and abuse – more than $750 million – have raised the ire of many conservative lawmakers who want major reductions in the program.

As for the Senate Ag Committee, it appears an end-of April farm bill markup hope by Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) will not be met. In a teleconference call on Thursday, Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), asked about talk that the Senate farm bill markup is falling by the wayside, responded, “My impression is that the markup is going to be in May. But I also get the impression that it’s not really lagging or falling back. The impression I get is that everybody’s trying to work through a variety of issues. You know, you do have some — some different dynamics this time. You have a new ranking member. He has a view of the world, justifiably so, so there are just some things we have to work through. “I would say this: I continue to tell people who are visiting my office or calling me that I’m optimistic that the Senate can get a farm bill done. I’d love to have markup occurring right now, but I also believe you’ve got to lay down the necessary steps. I believe that’s what’s happening today. My hope is we go to markup in May then, get a bill to the floor. I would love to see that bill debated and voted on. I think we can pass it on the floor. And then my hope is we can get something out of the House so we can get to conference and hopefully get this done before we run out of time.”

Comments: Sources inform that the Senate Ag Committee will likely hold its markup the week before an apparent House Ag Committee plan for its May 15 markup. Time will tell if both of those timelines are correct.

Of note, veteran congressional sources alert that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) this year may want the full House chamber to go first on the farm bill, unlike last year when the Senate had an extended floor debate and passed its farm bill, only to see the full House never consider the measure.

As for the House, the key role of any panel chairman is to make sure whatever comes out of the committee (in this case the Agriculture Committee) be able to get passed by the full House. That is harder than farm bill proponents either understand or care to admit. And that was the key reason why Cantor and other GOP leaders did not schedule House floor action on the farm bill in 2012 – the votes simply were not there. Why? Food stamp funding levels and other issues regarding the program. A more liberal Democratic-member House Ag Committee and the full House Democratic Caucus likely mean that only 30 to 40 House Democratic members would sign off on coming food stamp details. Taking the high end of that range, that means Lucas and farm group lobbyists would have to garner 180 Republican votes – no easy task because more than a few conservative Republicans want far more aggressive funding cuts and program changes in the food stamp (SNAP) program than what is likely to come out of the House Ag Committee markup vehicle.

Background: The House version of the farm bill approved by the panel in 2012 had $16 billion in reductions for SNAP and nutrition programs while the Senate only proposed reducing the program by $4 billion. Plus, the Senate savings level was essentially negated earlier this year in an updated scoring of the Senate version of the farm bill by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). And the issue of nutrition cuts were also going to be a major contention point if the process in 2012 had reached the point of trying to iron out the differences between the two versions of the bill.

Indications are that the level of nutrition program cuts that are eventually a part of a new farm bill will likely be determined via an agreement between congressional leaders and the Obama administration. That could certainly make the May 15 markup an interesting one, especially on the nutrition program area of the bill.

Bottom line: It's one thing to clear a farm bill out of the Ag panels. It's a far different thing to get the needed votes in the full chamber – especially the House. Just ask Cantor. The only way veteran farm bill watchers see a farm bill passing the House is with an overwhelming number of Republican votes. Not many Democratic members will sign off if there are the SNAP funding cuts and policy changes that will eventually be dictated by House GOP leadership. Can the farm bill lobby and Lucas deliver those votes?

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.