Is There a Path Forward on the Farm Bill?
June 27th, 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:
- Bring up the Senate farm bill – passed on a bipartisan basis with over two-thirds of Senators supporting the measure – for the House to vote on. That very clearly is a non-starter, since under no conceivable scenario could there be enough votes in the House to pass the Senate bill, even if the leaders agreed to bring it up, a highly unlikely prospect. Nonetheless, several Midwestern House Democrats have introduced the Senate bill in the House and are pushing this strategy.
- Bring the House Agriculture Committee bill to the floor without it being open to amendment. The theory here is that it passed in Committee with some bipartisan support, so could in the full House as well. But the full House is a very different creature than the far more parochial Committee. Shutting everyone out of the process except the Committee also seems doomed to failure.
- Split the bill into two bills — one for food stamps and nutrition, and a second bill for everything else. This approach has been championed by several Midwestern Republicans, and just today appears to have received the endorsement of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). There are at least two major short-term flaws to this option, not even counting the long-term harm it would do to the historic farm bill coalition.
- First, it is not at all clear that House Republicans could pass a food stamp-only bill, presumably one with larger food stamp cuts than proposed by the Committee to entice more hard core conservative votes. They would not get any Democratic votes and likely would not be able to get to the 218 votes needed for passage solely from within the Republican caucus. Separating the bills and then losing again would be deeply embarrassing.
- Second, even if they could pass it, it would make it even more unlikely that they could get the votes to pass a conference report, once the bill has been negotiated with the Senate. It will be hard enough to pass a conference report with the two houses already so far apart on food stamp funding. Multiplying this divide simply dooms the bill to end-game failure.
- Also note this second problem would be compounded because a farm-only farm bill, without its food stamp shield, would almost certainly increase the cuts to commodity and crop insurance subsidies, probably by a two-fold or greater factor, thereby jeopardizing farm district votes. Remember that both President Obama’s farm bill budget and the Paul Ryan (R-WI) House-passed budget call for over $30 billion in farm subsidy cuts, compared to the under $15 billion cut in the House bill that was voted on last week.
- Take up the bill again, as amended on the House floor last week, but subtract the most controversial food stamp amendments, including state options for adding workfare requirements and drug testing. This option is being talked up by House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK). This option may have some traction in terms of adding some Democratic votes to the yes column, but only if Democrats in general believe that is the most they can ask for and get in return for putting the bill over the top. If Democrats show even modest discipline, they could certainly ask for more than simply the removal of the most extreme food stamp amendments added on the floor.
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.