Farm Bill Headway

August 24, 2012 07:14 PM

Package clears Senate, full House action yet to come

As the most severe drought since the mid-1950s grips more states than not, the legislative process to formulate the next farm bill has been all too familiar. The rain clouds roll in, anticipation builds, a few raindrops fall...and that’s it. Just enough action to be a tease.

The Senate Agriculture Committee kicked off the process of developing a new farm bill but ran into trouble just as momentum began to build. Eventually, the committee got back on track and produced a bill. In the end, the markup session took just 4½ hours to go through a nearly 1,000-page bill that spends nearly $1 trillion.

Like pulling weeds. When the bill made its way out of committee and to the full Senate, it received the same kind of divided attention. While the vote to achieve cloture—to proceed to consider the bill—cleared, work on the actual package was held up until an agreement on amendments between Democratic and Republican Senate leaders was hammered out. Of the more than 300 amendments filed, the Senate agreed to move forward with 70. Despite the number of amendments, the chamber made only a few changes to the bill.

The Senate bill as approved saves $23.1 billion during a 10-year period, with reductions of $19.1 billion in commodity programs, $6.4 billion in conservation programs and $4 billion in nutrition programs. The latter was one of the more contentious issues, as dueling efforts to expand the reductions and to scale them back both failed on the Senate floor.

"This is the only bill that passed the Senate this year that cuts the deficit—and it got bipartisan support," said Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). "No other congressional committee has put forward plans to cut spending in their jurisdiction like we have. We went through each and every program, evaluated what was working and what wasn’t, and eliminated more than 100 programs and authorizations. Like farmers pulling weeds in the field, we were able to get rid of waste while strengthening the things that make the most difference."

On the House side, a similar scenario unfolded. The House Agriculture Committee, unlike the Senate committee, embarked on a markup session that included a painstaking process of considering a host of amendments. The panel worked into the wee hours of July 11 before the gavel fell on the proceedings, sending the bill out of committee with a 35-11 vote.

The House Ag Committee’s bill would trim spending by more than $35 billion over 10 years, with more than $23 billion in cuts to commodity programs and a $16 billion reduction in nutrition programs. As in the Senate, efforts at the committee level in the House to increase and reduce the nutrition cuts were brushed aside.

Given the strong bipartisan support that the bill enjoyed in committee, many predicted there would be House action on the package prior to lawmakers’ departure for the August congressional recess. That obviously didn’t happen, as the politics of a severe drought came into play.

House Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Ohio), ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and other lawmakers kept pushing for the bill to get to the floor before the recess. But each week that passed beyond the committee’s July 11 completion of the bill yielded nothing.

Disaster aid fix-up. Just prior to lawmakers exit, an effort to tie a one-year farm bill extension to disaster aid surfaced in the House. When it became clear that the extension wouldn’t pass the House, it was shelved and the disaster aid package approved.

The disaster aid effort had roots in the 2008 farm bill, Lucas noted. "I heard people call this extending disaster assistance for a year. No—what we’re doing is fixing a problem," he said. "We’re back-filling a hole and fixing inefficiency. We’re going to help a group of producers who, when the old farm bill passed, thought they had something they could depend on, but because of budget issues the fifth year was not funded. We need to help them by fulfilling our commitment that what we said would be there, will be there."

The Senate won’t be taking up the disaster aid, though, as Stabenow said it was "too narrow" in terms of the producers it would benefit.

As of now, it’s likely lawmakers will address disaster aid—or at least extensions of the expired livestock disaster programs (the Livestock Forage Disaster Assistance Program; the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees and Farm-Raised Fish Program; and the Livestock Indemnity Program)—prior to the November election.

A partisan year. The farm bill as a whole remains an uncertainty. Based on reports from Republicans and Democrats, the bill in the House has become ensnared in a battle of politics—something that is unusual for a piece of legislation that often is one of Congress’ most bipartisan efforts. The fact that 2012 is an election year has certainly played a role in the pace of the process.

In regard to the split, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said: "I’ve made pretty clear that the House is pretty well divided. You’ve got the left concerned about reductions in the food stamp program. You’ve got the right, who don’t think the cuts go far enough in the food stamp program to bring it into…compliance with what the law has been. And frankly, I haven’t seen 218 votes in the middle to pass the farm bill."

In the waning hours of the pre-recess action, Peterson countered: "Members will now have to explain to their constituents why the House did not even try to consider a new five-year farm bill. Frankly, we’re in this position because the House leadership has refused to bring a five-year farm bill to the floor."

Chairman Lucas hasn’t given up. "I believe in the legislative process," he said. "I believe in letting the House work its will. We did it in the House Agriculture Committee and we can do it here, too."

So what will happen? If a conference with the House and Senate on the bill does take place, nutrition cuts loom as a point of friction. Odds still favor the farm bill being finalized in the post-election lame-duck session with the following issues top of mind: expiring 2001 and 2003 tax cuts; expiring estate tax provisions; and several other tax and spending matters, such as the across-the-board cuts that are slated to take effect in January 2013.

The farm bill, with its $28 billion in potential savings, could come in handy for lawmakers seeking to offset other pricey packages. Of course, all of this could drag out depending on which party wins the White House and control of Congress in November.

There will likely be more storm clouds that thwart the farm bill process and produce little rain. Just as with the drought, though, rain will eventually come and farmers will finally know what the new farm bill entails.

The Upshot of an Extension

While farm-state lawmakers want to wrap up a new farm bill by Sept. 30 to avoid an extension of the 2008 bill, proponents say they have several months before problems would result without a new farm bill in place.

For example, during the 2008 farm bill debate, it was late December 2007 before lawmakers started approving what turned out to be several extensions of the 2002 farm bill. When today’s lawmakers stress the need to get a farm bill together by Sept. 30, it is primarily because they want to have the bill over and done with—not because failure to do so will have serious ramifications.

Should an extension begin to seem inevitable, the question then becomes for how long and what will be included. If it’s a full one-year extension that covers 2013 crops, conservative lawmakers will likely want to eliminate direct payments for that crop year, or at least cut a big chunk out of direct payments to serve as a "down payment" on agriculture’s share of deficit reduction.

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