August 3, 2012
On Thursday, August 2, the House of Representatives passed a stand-alone disaster bill by a vote of 223 to 197. Thirty-five Democrats voted for the bill, while 46 Republicans voted against the measure. The bill would cut $639 million from two conservation programs — the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program — to provide $383 million in disaster aid to livestock producers and certain fruit growers; the rest would go to deficit reduction.
This week was another twist in the ongoing saga of trying to get the House Agriculture Committee-passed farm bill to the House floor — an important step in the 2012 Farm Bill process if Congress is to pass a full reauthorization of the farm bill before the current one expires on September 30. Republican House leadership has refused to bring the Committee-passed bill to the floor, and initially, there was little support for considering disaster assistance.
As the drought worsened, and as home-town and national media outlets reported the drought’s impact on farmers and ranchers, pressure to act increased. At the end of last week, the House leadership tried to address two issues in one bill by introducing a disaster aid package tied to an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill. There was strong opposition (including NSAC opposition) to the leadership’s initial proposal to pass disaster assistance along with an extension, and by the beginning of this week, it was clear that there weren’t the votes to pass the measure.
The leadership then introduced the stand-alone drought assistance bill that ultimately passed, but faced additional opposition. The original plan had been to pass the bill under a “suspension” of rules, which would have required a two-thirds majority vote to pass (instead of a simple majority). After continued pressure from conservation groups, agriculture groups, and lawmakers to move a comprehensive farm bill instead of a stand-alone disaster bill, the leadership had to change plans again because it became clear that there were not enough votes to pass a simple disaster bill under suspension. As noted above, the bill then passed the House.
The Senate did not act on stand-alone disaster assistance this week. Having passed a comprehensive 2012 Farm Bill reauthorization — which includes a broader disaster package than what the House just passed — in June, the Senate leadership determined that a stand-alone disaster bill was not needed because the Senate-passed farm bill already includes disaster assistance.
Both sides of the aisle blamed the other for inaction — Republicans blamed the Democrat-led Senate for not taking up the House’s disaster bill late on Thursday, and Democrats blamed Republicans for not acting on the broader disaster assistance provisions by moving forward with a comprehensive farm bill. House Agriculture Committee members were torn between the positions, and made the case for a comprehensive farm bill reauthorization during their floor speeches before the disaster bill vote, but many ultimately voted for the stand-alone disaster bill.
After the House vote, the Chairs and Ranking Members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, along with select Committee members (including Senators Thune (R-SD), Chambliss (R-GA), Lugar (R-IN), Johanns (R-NE), Baucus (D-MT), and Conrad (D-ND)), met to discuss options for moving forward with the farm bill. There are still multiple possible paths forward for the farm bill (for details on the paths forward, written before the House Agriculture Committee passed its bill but otherwise still relevant, click here).
Leaving that meeting, Chairwoman Stabenow (D-MI) said she would aim to pass a full five-year farm bill in September, but she left the door open to passing comprehensive disaster aid if that efforts fails. Given the September 30 deadline for reauthorization of the farm bill, if efforts to pass a full reauthorization fail, then it is likely that whatever disaster package is put together will also include some permutation of an extension of current law. Reports from that meeting also suggest that efforts to reconcile the Senate-passed bill with the House Committee-passed bill will continue, although no promises of a traditional conference-type situation were made.
NSAC continues to support comprehensive reauthorization of the farm bill by the September 30 deadline, and continues to call for lawmakers to pass the 2012 Farm Bill this year, on time.