Moving toward the Brink as They Head out of Town
August 2nd, 2013
“This is b___s___” Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA) expressing anger over having his transportation and housing appropriations bill pulled from the House floor by the GOP leadership.
“With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted three months ago. Thus, I believe that the House has made its choice: Sequestration – and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts – must be brought to an end.” House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY) after the transportation spending bill was yanked.
“It will be so unfortunate if we go home to our constituents in August and are forced to tell them that we’re unable to do our job.” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) before the Senate transportation and housing appropriations bill she led with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) was blocked by a filibuster by other Senate Republicans. Adding after the vote: “This is so absurd.”
“Adding an additional $20 billion in nutrition cuts, on top of the poison pill nutrition amendments that brought down the Agriculture Committee’s bipartisan farm bill in June, effectively kills any hopes of passing a five-year farm bill this year.” Reaction of Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) to the news that House Republicans plan a vote on a $40 billion cut to the food stamp program in September.
“I don’t understand the thinking of the House leadership when they are talking about putting forward something that I don’t think can even pass the House and certainly cannot become law…This is a ticking time bomb here, waiting to go off. It makes no sense.” Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) reacting to the same news.
“What I fear is that we’re going to again come to the edge of the cliff and all of a sudden there’s going to be these midnight meetings. That’s the worst way to legislate.” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) on the lack of any real negotiations over the budget and debt ceiling impasse awaiting Congress this fall. To which he added, perhaps not completely in jest – “It’s always darkest before it’s totally black.”
Just when you think things cannot get any worse for the farm bill and for agricultural and other domestic appropriations bills, it does in fact get worse. This week, both the House and the Senate were unable to proceed to a final vote on the annual appropriations bill for the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a bill known in Hill-speak as the THUD bill. The acronym proved prescient this year, falling with a very resounding thud.
Congress is now gone for a five-week summer recess, leaving a total mess behind.
As the first domestic appropriations measure before the both full bodies for the year, the demise of the transportation and housing bill is seen as a sign that Congress will be unable to pass many or perhaps even any of the domestic spending bills this year. The agriculture bill has not been scheduled for a vote in either body.
Government spending on transportation, housing, and urban development has declined rapidly in the past three years, yet still the House bill for FY 2014 was $4 billion below current levels inclusive of the additional sequester cut, and $10 billion below the Senate bill level. The House level proved too low even for Republican Members who had voted previously for an overall budget that pretty much locked in the low numbers. Without the votes to pass it, the House GOP leadership pulled it from the floor.
Meanwhile, over in the Senate, a bipartisan coalition had approved the bill in Committee, but one-by-one, the Republican members of that coalition were stripped away by Senate Ranking Member Mitch McConnell, leading the Subcommittee Ranking Member, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), as the only Republican left voting to stop the filibuster.
Overall, the House and Senate are $91 billion apart on the FY 2014 spending bills, a difference magnified even further by House proposals to add money to defense bills and make up the difference out of domestic social spending accounts.
It now seems all but certain Congress will have to resort to a “continuing resolution” maintaining funding at current levels for a period of time rather than doing its work and getting new appropriations bills passed. The alternative to a continuing resolution passing by October 1 is a government shutdown starting that same date.
Whether real bills could then be finalized later in the calendar year, and perhaps attached to legislation increasing the national debt limit, remains to be seen. The alternative to passing legislation to raise the debt ceiling would be placing the country into default. Assuming that no party to the debate would be willing to risk that embarrassment and economic debacle, a deal may yet be possible, though the actions of this past week certainly are enough to make one begin to wonder.
Whither the Farm Bill?
In addition to the train wreck on the government spending bills and the wide chasm that exists between the House and Senate on immigration reform, the farm bill is right up there on the exhibit list of dysfunctional, divided governance. Yesterday had both disastrous news for the farm bill but perhaps a small ray of hope too.
House Majorty Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and his special food stamp working group of conservative Republican legislators announced yesterday they are putting together a package of $40 billion in SNAP or food stamp funding cuts – double the level of cuts passed by the House Agriculture Committee and ten times the level of cuts approved by the full Senate on a bipartisan basis. In addition to the cuts, they intend to include a variety of wide reaching policy changes, including mandatory drug testing, a prohibition on participation by former convicts, and an incentive to states to adopt workfare requirements for SNAP recipients. The bill to do all this, and perhaps more, is expected to be brought to the floor of the House sometime in September.
It is widely understood that if that vote is in fact held in September, and if the measure passes on a strictly partisan basis (which is the only way it could possibly pass), the farm bill is doomed for this year. It would be difficult if not impossible for a final farm bill conference report, with a food stamp spending level at only a fraction of the Cantor-proposed levels, to win approval on the House floor once the party is on record in support of far more draconian cuts.
The only way such a conference report could pass is if the GOP leadership were to allow it to pass on the strength of Democratic votes, something they have not shown a willingness to do in the past except in extreme situations. Whether the farm bill would qualify as an extreme situation can only be known by the House GOP leaders themselves, but few observers would be willing to bet much money on it.
Of course, another way of looking at the House strategy, if there in fact is one, is that all of the recent strange actions – voting down the bipartisan House Committee bill, then passing a farm-only farm bill with no chance of amendments on a partisan basis and after much arm twisting, and now proposing to double down on food stamp cuts for the needy in September – are nothing more than delaying tactics to get the real action on the farm bill, and on appropriations bills, to line up with the action that will have to be taken to avoid putting the country in default later this year, likely in November or early December. Perhaps the thinking is they will have their greatest leverage as the country approaches another completely manufactured crisis.
The good news from yesterday is that the Senate officially appointed its farm bill conferees* and the Senate is thus ready to begin the process of stitching together a final bill if and when the House ever decides to appoint its conferees. The bad news, of course, is that as of this writing the House does not intend to do that until late September at the earliest, and the current farm bill extension expires on October 1.
Given the Senate Democratic leadership’s refusal to entertain another farm bill extension, at least in the near term, it now seems all but certain the farm bill will expire on October 1 and a wide range of USDA programs will be shut down, at least temporarily, as they were last year.
Last year, most but not all farm bill programs were up and running again on January 1, after a three month hiatus, though priority sustainable agriculture programs for new and beginning farmers, minority farmers, organic farmers, and fruit and vegetable farmers as well as for rural job creation and renewable energy programs have irresponsibly been shut down this whole year.
It would be a grave step backwards for our nation’s farmers and consumers if these innovative, job creating programs are once again the causalities of Congress’s inability to do its job and pass a farm bill. We intend to focus on this issue like a laser, whether Congress moves toward a new farm bill or another farm bill extension.
* As we reported earlier, the Senate conferees are, on the Democratic side, Senators Stabenow (MI), Leahy (VT), Harkin (IA), Brown (OH), Klobuchar (MN), and Bennet (CO), and on the Republican side, Senators Cochran (MS), Roberts (KS), Chambliss (GA), Boozman (AR), and Hoeven (ND).