June 27, 2013
This week, we are doing a three-part blog series on the House’s failure to pass a farm bill last week. The first post covered the topic of farm program reform, the second post analyzes why the bill failed, and this third discusses options for moving the bill forward.
In the week since the U.S. House of Representatives shockingly voted down the farm bill, many options for a new path forward on the bill have been suggested. Most of them have fundamental problems, if not fatal flaws.
Here are some of the most popular:
If each of those options have major flaws, is there a more viable alternative? While no path forward seems particularly easy after last week’s debacle, there is at least the possibility of building on Chairman Lucas’ approach, but in addition to removing the worst food stamp measures added via floor amendment also pursuing more bipartisan middle-ground reform.
There was clear bipartisan support for farm subsidy reform on the floor, and more could be added to bipartisan applause. There were also strong bipartisan teams working in support of more local options for international food aid, and stronger support for local food infrastructure in the U.S. Both of these efforts were frustrated last week, but could be revived, worked out, and used to add support for the bill overall. Modest, easy-to-accommodate funding improvements for minority farmer, organic farmer, and farmer-supported healthy food access programs would also do wonders to rally support for the bill as a whole.
That is the type of package that could garner enough votes to pass. It may not be exactly what the Committee leadership wants, but it would bring the bill more in line with popular support and would allow them to get a bill to conference and ultimately to the President’s desk. But whether there will be a second chance to put Humpty Dumpty back together again remains to be seen.
Point of Order as Leverage
Adding to the intrigue in the House is the timing of the farm bill in relation to the annual agriculture appropriations bill. After next week’s recess, the House is scheduled to be taking up the agriculture appropriations bill. The appropriations bill, as has been the case in recent years, steals money from the farm bill — primarily from the conservation title — and uses the farm bill funds (which is in the Agriculture Committee’s jurisdiction) to pay for other discretionary funding priorities in the appropriations bill (which is the Appropriations Committee’s jurisdiction). NSAC has long decried this raid on farm bill conservation funding.
Now Chairman Lucas has filed a point of order against the appropriations bill on this point, and the Rules Committee has allowed the point of order to be raised during floor debate. The full House approved the rule yesterday by a vote of 235-187. If the point of order is sustained, it would strip out nearly $900 million of farm bill “offsets” in the $19 billion bill, bringing the entire bill to a crashing halt or forcing appropriators to find a way to plug the huge hole in their bill, a nearly impossible task given the huge USDA cuts their bill already assumes.
Lucas may insist on certain guarantees from House GOP leaders on the farm bill before removing his point of order. For instance, he might insist that a round two on the farm bill occur prior to voting on the appropriations bill, or might at least insist on a guarantee that there will be a round two later in July. These options are being discussed now behind the scenes.
What About Another Farm Bill Extension?
At this point there appears to be no easy solution or viable end-game strategy for the new long-term farm bill, which raises the question of whether there might be a need for another short or medium-term farm bill extension. The current extension runs out on September 30.
Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he has no intention of passing any more temporary extensions of the old law. Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has made similar pronouncements.
The clock is ticking however. Even if the House makes a second try in July, and even if they can salvage a bill, it is not a certainty that the measure could be successfully conferenced between the two houses in such a fashion that the conference report would be approved by both the House and the Senate by September 30. At some point, an extension strategy may need to be discussed, but it is premature at this point.
A simple re-extension of the current extension would be unacceptable to enough players that it too would very likely be doomed to failure. There would be no working dairy program, no support for beginning farmers, organic agriculture, and local food, several conservation programs would also now fall by the wayside, and there would be no farm subsidy reform. An extension would therefore not be a simple extension, but a more complex undertaking. And once you start in on some of that complexity, you very quickly get into what might be thought of as a mini-farm bill, which may put you back at square one.
For now, the best option by far is for the House to quickly work toward a revised version of their farm bill that adds more reform and subtracts controversial food stamp amendments that gets them the votes needed to pass a bill and go to conference with the Senate. We will know in the coming weeks whether that path forward becomes a reality or not.