Path to the 2012 Farm Bill: Next Steps in the Senate and the House
May 17th, 2012
The burst of activity a few weeks ago around the Senate Agriculture Committee farm bill markup was an important step in the multi-step farm bill reauthorization process. In an earlier 10-post series we summarized action and results of the Senate markup. The next steps in the Senate and the House are the subject of this post.
Now that the Senate Agriculture Committee’s version of the farm bill – the Agricultural Reform, Food, and Jobs Act – has been passed out of committee, the bill heads to the Senate floor for consideration by the full Senate. On Wednesday, Chairwoman Stabenow (D-MI) and Ranking Member Roberts (R-KS) held a press conference to reiterate their support for the committee-passed bill and emphasize their desire to have the bill go to the floor soon.
The timeline for floor action is not yet clear, although Chairwoman Stabenow indicated during the press conference that she is working closely with Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) to schedule floor time and that she is confident that it will happen in the next few weeks. Based on current information — but quite subject to change — we estimate that the bill will go to the floor in June, most likely in mid-June.
One of the many factors influencing floor time is that the official Congressional Budget Office score (the official cost) for the bill voted out of committee has not yet been released. During yesterday’s press conference, Chairwoman Stabenow said that the committee anticipates having the score “very soon.” Without a score, the bill will not go to the floor.
Earlier this week, forty-four Senators sent a letter to Sen. Reid and Republican Leader McConnell (R-KY) in support of scheduling floor time for the farm bill, and Sen. Feinstein (D-CA) sent her own letter echoing that sentiment. Both letters voice support for an open amendment process, which would allow for Senators to offer, debate, and vote on changes to the bill.
Senate offices are starting to consider amendments to offer during the Senate floor debate. Certain amendments, like one to cap insurance subsidies, are taking shape. NSAC is currently involved in discussions on a half dozen potential floor amendments. As it becomes clearer which amendments will be offered, we will keep our readership posted.
As the Senate tries to find time to bring the farm bill to the floor, the House Agriculture Committee is working on its version of the bill in committee. Chairman Lucas (R-OK) is finishing several weeks of hearings in Washington, DC, with two hearings on the commodity and crop insurance titles, and one on energy and forestry, closing out the series this week.
As the House Agriculture Committee works to put together a farm bill, Chairman Lucas has been clear about a number of starting points. First, contrary to what was previously expected, the committee will not be starting from the Senate committee-passed bill, but rather than draft bill prepared last year for the ill-fated congressional Super Committee process. The main sticking points have to do with the structure of the commodity and crop insurance titles in the Senate bill and the size of the cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) program. Both Chairman Lucas and Ranking Member Peterson (D-MN) have publicly criticized the Senate bill’s farm safety net for not being appropriate for all commodity crops, and for not being structured to protect farmers against several years of bad crop prices. Chairman Lucas has also indicated that his bill will cut food stamp benefits more sharply than the Senate bill.
In terms of the policy in the rest of the bill, the House Chair is comparing what came out of the Senate committee-passed bill to the proposal crafted last fall for the failed Super Committee process, and determining what to support or remove.
The funding available for the House bill will be less than what the Senate Agriculture Committee used for its bill. The Senate bill cuts approximately $23 billion from the currently-projected nearly $1 trillion farm bill spending level over the next decade, which is the amount that was proposed last fall for the failed Super Committee process. The House Agriculture Committee is aiming to cut approximately $33 billion from current projected spending, mirroring the amount that the committee approved in April for the House budget reconciliation process and the size of the overall cut called for by the Obama Administration.
In an already challenging fiscal environment, the additional $10 billion in cuts that the House is trying to make through the farm bill means that there will be even less money available to fund a wide array of farm bill programs that expire this year if there is no renewed funding for them in the new farm bill.
Chairman Lucas has indicated that instead of having the full $33 billion in savings coming from SNAP as was the case with his budget reconciliation bill approved earlier by a strictly partisan vote, there will be a major cut to SNAP but also to other areas of the bill. Where the committee will make cuts and how big those cuts will be to certain areas of the bill may largely determine the success or failure of the bill in committee and on the House floor.
Chairman Lucas has said that he would like to produce a bi-partisan bill — which he most certainly will have to do to pass a bill on the House floor. Because of the influence of the tea party, there are Members of the House majority who may very well vote against a bill if it doesn’t cut enough from SNAP or from farm subsidies. There will also likely be Democrats in Committee and on the floor who vote against a bill that has any sigificant cut to SNAP. If he wants to get a bill done, Chairman Lucas will have to find that sweet spot that may prove illsuive without very strong bipartisan consultation.
In terms of timing for markup in the House Agriculture Committee, our best guess at this point is that it will happen in mid- to late June. Unlike the process in the House Agriculture Committee last farm bill where much of the work was done at the subcommittee level, there will not be subcommittee markups of different parts of the bill, and the bill will be considered solely in full committee.
The current farm bill expires on September 30 of this year. If a new 2012 Farm Bill has not been signed into law by then, Congress will need to pass a temporary extension of the current farm bill. While some previous farm bills have needed extensions, those extensions were largely uncontroversial and pro forma. An extension during this presidential election campaign and in this highly charged Congress that has had trouble passing other basic measures will almost certainly prove to be controversial and difficult.
Thankfully, what is clear is that the Chairs and Ranking Members of the House and Senate agriculture committees want to get a full farm bill done this year. While there are many unknowns in how that happens, the process is moving ahead in both chambers.
What is also clear is that June will potentially be a very busy and critical month for the 2012 Farm Bill.
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