Next Step for House Farm Bill: Uncertainty

June 21, 2013 12:12 AM

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Stinging loss for GOP leadership, political win for Democrats have both sides talking possible next steps

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Uncertainty prevails after surprising defeat of farm bill on House floor. The proposed House farm bill was defeated in a vote of 195-234, with only 24 Democratic members voting for the measure. The bill didn't even draw a majority of the House Agriculture Committee's Democrats – just nine of the committee's 21 Democrats voted for the bill; all but one of the panel's 25 Republicans, Bob Goodlatte (Va.), voted for passage. The Democratic tally was below the 30 to 40 votes some said House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) had indicated to GOP leadership. But given the final vote count, even 40 Democratic votes wouldn’t have put the bill in the win column. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his aides said that their count was right on target, and they could’ve flipped more lawmakers if the vote was close. Peterson insisted that he never gave a specific number of votes to leadership. "I couldn't get people to give me a final answer," Peterson said. "[My Caucus] wanted to see where the amendments were, so when the (Rep. Bob) Goodlatte (R-Va.) dairy amendment passed that was a problem, and when the (Rep. Steve) Southerland (R-Fla.) food stamp amendment passed that was a problem," he said. Overall, 171 Republicans voted for the measure and 62 opposed it -- one out of every four GOP members. Among Democrats, just 24 were in favor and 172 opposed. Many Democrats had complained the bill cut too deeply into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, while Republican opposition focused on the bill's cost and the need for more changes in SNAP. Democrats in the chamber cheered when it became clear that the bill would fail. GOP leaders blamed Democrats and insisted their whip counts were accurate, even as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who helped whip support for the bill, said he was surprised at the 62 GOP defections. "I was surprised by about half of them," he said. "I thought they would have taken more of a 10,000-foot view." In a private meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) cited the farm bill process to describe how he intended to move immigration reform through the House – a process some may now question.

Six House committee chairmen voted "no," including House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the author of a successful dairy amendment backed by Boehner. The other chairmen who voted against the bill were Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Penn.), Veterans Affairs Committee Chairmen Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.).

The defeat is being billed as another stinging loss for the House GOP leadership team of Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), even though the two did more to support a farm bill than most leadership in decades. However, the stunning defeat gave House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) the opportunity to call her GOP counterparts amateurs in running the House. It also renewed questions about Boehner's ability to lead his fractious conference. "What [was] happening on the floor today was a demonstration of major amateur hour," Pelosi said. "They didn't get results and they put the blame on somebody else." Pelosi described the stewardship of the bill as "juvenile" and wondered why Republican leaders would allow conservatives a vote on two amendments she described as poison pills if some of those members were still going to oppose the final bill.

Finger-pointing among leaders of both political parties ensued shortly after the vote, with Democratic leadership saying Republicans went from a bipartisan bill that cleared the Ag Committee to a partisan bill that added some "poison pill" language that would allow states to impose work requirements on food stamp recipients. Pelosi noted that 61 Republicans voted for the amendment, then voted against the final bill. "It's a stunning thing," she said. "Why would you give people an amendment that's going to kill your bill?" Congressional sources say Cantor insisted the amendment be brought up for a vote. Party politics was surely in plan via the farm bill vote. For Democrats, the display played right into an emerging theme of their 2014 campaign – that of a Republican Congress "in chaos" that can’t be trusted to govern and can’t produce results."If Leader Pelosi was Speaker Pelosi, this would never have happened," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said as Pelosi stood smiling next to him. In the Senate, Democrats gloated that they have already passed a farm bill with bipartisan support.

Dairy and sugar policy votes. Before the final vote, the House overwhelmingly approved, 291-135, an amendment that deleted the supply management language from proposed dairy policy reform – 196 Republicans were joined by 95 Democrats in supporting the amendment, with 35 Republicans and 100 Democrats opposing it. The House defeated, 206-221, an attempt to alter the current US sugar program – 137 Republicans were joined by 69 Democrats in support of the amendment, while 95 Republicans and 126 Democrats opposed the amendment. An amendment by Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) that would have capped commodity payments at $250,000 annually for any single farm was adopted, 230-194. The amendment, which was supported by the National Farmers Union, was supported by 97 Republicans and 133 Democrats and opposed by 134 Republicans and 60 Democrats. An amendment by Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) that would have limited crop insurance premium subsidies to producers with annually adjusted gross incomes of $250,00 or less and capped per person subsidies fell on a narrow 208-217 vote. It was supported by 74 Republicans and 134 Democrats, while 157 Republicans and 60 Democrats voted against it.

The next step for the farm bill is murky. While unlikely, the chief Republican vote-counter, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), said the bill could come back to the floor next week, with changes. "We can correct it if [Democrats] are not going to help us," he said after the vote. Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) promised that next week’s closed-door meeting of House Republicans would be "real interesting."

House Ag Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) issued a statement after the vote saying he would make another attempt to move a farm bill but did not know when or under what circumstance, saying it was too early for details. "We are assessing all of our options, but I have no doubt that we will finish our work in the near future and provide the certainty that our farmers, ranchers, and rural constituents need," he said.

Some said the matter could take several months to correct, with the potential of GOP leadership taking over and trying to construct a package that could garner the needed 218 votes for passage. GOP leaders do not want another extension of the 2008 Farm Bill, even though this is what most observers are initially predicting may well be the case if a way cannot be found to resurrect the farm bill process. Peterson said that he thinks the bill can be salvaged, but added, "Without a bill, we'll end up with an extension. There is no way we are going back to permanent law. In my opinion we will get an extension, it's not the best thing in the world, but it will do," he said.

Pelosi said she would prefer a farm program reauthorization to another extension. "I would hope that we have another bite at the apple, that there would be a place for a bill to pass the House to go forward," she said during her weekly press conference.

One possible change is to cut the amount of subsidy via crop insurance buy-up premiums -- a proposal pushed by President Obama -- and utilize a portion of those savings for a worker training assistance program relative to a work requirement amendment that Republicans put into the farm bill, a development Peterson said lost about 15 Democratic member votes. Opponents of the GOP amendment, including Peterson, said the amendment provided no money for training and would lead states to move people off SNAP in order to get incentive money they can use without restrictions. The amendment passed 227-198.

Comments: Whatever your positions are on specific farm policy issues, the stunning defeat of the House farm bill was a very bad day for production agriculture. Randy Russell, a veteran farm policy observer, and a former USDA official who now heads up a respected agriculture consulting service, told me, "Yesterday should cause everyone in the ag community to take a hard look in the mirror. Yesterday our community suffered a major setback. The effect of having your major reauthorization bill defeated on the House floor is a pock mark on all of agriculture, broadly defined. And it is time for a major reassessment about how we work together, the positions that are taken, and how we communicate those to members of Congress. And if we do not, there will be long-term ramifications to the effectiveness of our industry, broadly defined, to advocate its positions."

As noted above, there were several subplots. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) early this week said there would be only 25 to 30 Democratic votes in favor of the bill – that should have been an initial warning, but it apparently went unheeded. Politics was surely at play when Democratic leaders sensed an opportunity to again embarrass GOP leadership. The Ag Committee and its stakeholders did not put together a bill and amendments that would garner the necessary 218 votes. On the plus side, there was some interesting and worthwhile debate and votes on some policy items such as pay caps, dairy and sugar policy. As for farm group effectiveness, the sugar producer industry again showed why they are number-one in clout, as opposed to the whipping the dairy producer lobby garnered from their stinging defeat on the floor.

Bottom line comes from one industry lobbyist who told me, "My gut tells me the Republicans need to regroup quickly and understand the political beating they are going to take from their rural base and that the stupid overreach on SNAP will cost them all the other reforms in the bill they liked. Until they fix this, Senate Dems will make them the poster child of disfunctionality."


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






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