June 15, 2012
Consideration of the 2012 Farm Bill moved ahead this week but progress in the Senate was slower than agriculture committee leaders had previously expected. It is unclear whether and by which path the bill moves forward next week, and below we go into some of the options. There is a reasonable chance a deal for debating and voting on the bill will be reached very early next week, though it is by no means a certainty.
Options for Moving the Farm Bill Ahead in the Senate
The Senate does not yet have a deal for how to move forward on amendments. (In last week’s post, we explained why having a deal on amendments is a critical piece of the Senate farm bill puzzle.) Almost three hundred amendments have been filed, and Chairwoman Stabenow (D-MI), Ranking Member Roberts (R-KS), Majority Leader Reid (D-NV), and Minority Leader McConnell (R-KY) are trying to come up with a much shorter list of amendments that will be offered and voted on.
Option #1: Senate Reaches a Deal Next Week
If Senate leaders can come up with a list of amendments to debate, then debate on the bill can move forward. Chairwoman Stabenow has repeatedly said this week that she and Ranking Member Roberts are working with Senate Leadership to get a deal. The earliest that we expect a possible deal to be announced would be early next week, possibly late Monday, more likely on Tuesday. The deal would represent a compromise between Democratic and Republican leadership and agriculture committee leadership on the number of amendments and which amendments would be offered and voted on during the floor debate. If a deal is reached, it might be reasonable to expect a fairly continuous series of votes one right after the other on all the amendments approved for debate
Option #2: Holding Pattern Continues
If it seems like a deal on amendments can be reached, but it hasn’t been reached by early next week, then the Senate could continue in the holding pattern of this week, or it could move on to other business while a deal is being negotiated.
The holding pattern of this week was characterized by Senators making floor speeches on the bill, and Majority Leader Reid moving forward with votes on two amendments at a time — the first two being one by Senator Shaheen (D-NH) to end the sugar program and the other by Senator Paul (R-KY) to turn the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) into block grants to states. The vote was on the “motion to table,” meaning that Senators were voting to table — or cease consideration — of the amendments. Both were defeated, by votes of 50-46 and 65-33 respectively.
Objections from Republican Senators blocked consideration on smaller batches of amendments that Majority Leader Reid brought up for consideration.
It is hard to guess how much longer the Senate would tolerate this holding pattern. Majority Leader Reid, without a deal and facing opposition from Republican leadership, could have stopped consideration of the bill this week. But, by allowing for votes on “motions to table,” he provided a temporary way forward while leadership continued to negotiate a deal. He may continue to offer that path next week if he thinks that a deal is well on its way to being reached, though patience may be wearing thin.
Option #3: No Deal, No Farm Bill
If they cannot come up with a list of amendments to debate and vote on, then the bill pretty much dies in the Senate for now.
A number of amendments have been filed that deal with hot-button political issues that have nothing to do with the farm bill. These include repealing the estate tax, weakening the Clean Water Act, preventing the regulation of farm dust, and a variety of foreign policy and defense issues, among others. These types of non-germane and controversial amendments add a layer of election-year politics to a bill that normally enjoys bipartisan support, and if Republican leadership hinges its support for a deal on having these types of election year politics amendments offered, then the deal in all likelihood will fall apart.
Amendments to Senate Farm Bill
Almost three hundred amendments to the bill have been filed, both related and not related to the farm bill. On Wednesday, NSAC sent a letter to Senators stating its position on the amendments that had been filed up through Tuesday, focusing on amendments that advance agriculture reform, food, and jobs.
On Thursday, NSAC joined over 90 organizations in a letter supporting passage of the amendment to re-link soil and wetland conservation requirements to crop insurnace premium subsidies, the largest farm subsidy in the new farm bill. Earlier, at the beginning of the week, NSAC also joined over 500 organizations on a letter opposing any farm bill that increased the size of the cuts to farm conservation programs beyond the ten percent cut in the pending Senate bill. A sign-on letter in support of beginning, minority, and veteran farmer amendments will be delivered Monday.
With rice and peanut interests being unhappy with the results coming out of the Senate Agriculture Committee markup, it has long been anticipated that an alternative proposal would be put forth, and that amendment was filed on Thursday by Senators Conrad (D-ND), Baucus (D-MT), Hoeven (R-ND), and Chambliss (R-GA). It would create an additional commodity program within the bill, similar to the current counter cyclical payment (CCP) program, except that it would be based on planted acres rather than historic base acres and would have significantly higher government-set target prices. The measure, which is still being scored to determine its cost, would be offset by striking two crop insurance provisions from the underlying bill – a measure to keep insurance coverage higher after multiple disaster years and a new peanut revenue insurance program.
The measure would allow producers to participate in both the revenue-based commodity payment program in the underlying bill and the proposed counter cyclical price-based program. It would create a new $65,000 per farm payment limit ($130,000 for married couples) that would be on top of the $50,000 ($100,000 if married) in the underlying bill. NSAC strongly opposes the payment limit provision in the amendment which would destroy the historic commitment made in the underlying bill.
Another measure filed this week would also attempt to nullify the crop insurance reform amendment introduced by Senators Coburn (R-OK) and Durbin (D-IL). In a clear sign that opponents of the reform measure are worried about its very good chances for passing, Senator Thune (R-SD) introduced an amendment to the reform amendment that would effectively kill the original amendment. NSAC strongly opposes the Thune counter-measure, though we believe a compromise could be worked out that would not gut the reform.
And in the House…
A draft farm bill has been put together by House Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) and is in the process of being evaluated by the Congressional Budget Office. If all goes according to the Chair’s plan, the bill will be finalized early next week and may become publicly available by the end of next week, with Committee debate and voting on amendments the following week. We will report in more depth on the House farm bill process next week if that plan is realized and thus details become known.
Also next week, the House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up the FY 2013 agriculture appropriations bill. For more on the appropriations measure, read our earlier post that details the bill reported by the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, including proposed annual funding levels, major cuts to farm bill conservation programs, and legislative riders attempting to write policy to stop anti-trust enforcement in the livestock and poultry sector and do an end run around judicial review of GMO regulations.