Update: On Saturday, September 28, the House approved the rule to allow for debate over the government funding bill without any delays, a rule which also combined the farm-only and nutrition-only farm bills back into a single comprehensive bill. Four Democrats voted yes and four Republicans voted no in what was otherwise a party-line vote. Whether this vote leads to the House appointing its farm bill conferees and starting the House-Senate farm bill conference remains to be seen. See post below for details.
Monday is September 30, the last day of the federal government’s fiscal year and the last day the existing farm bill is still in force. While progress on short-term “continuing resolution” to keep the government fully open and functioning after midnight on Monday is quite uncertain, a procedural motion in the House related to the funding bill that is expected to pass on Saturday will mark some forward progress on the farm bill.
Farm Bill Machinations
The House vote will be on a rule that would allow it to debate and pass a government funding bill on a moment’s notice as the fiscal year clock runs down. Hitching a ride on that procedural motion is a provision to rejoin the House-passed farm-only farm bill (H.R. 2642) with the House-passed nutrition-only farm bill (H.R. 3102). If the procedural motion passes as expected, it will send the re-joined single comprehensive House farm bill back to the Senate with the expectation that the Senate would act to strike the House language, replace it with the Senate-passed farm bill, ask for a conference with the House to start negotiating on a final bill, and re-appoint the Senate representatives to such a conference committee.
Even if all that comes to pass, it is still unclear what will happen once that message is received from the Senate.
One option is what we might call the normal option. Under the normal option, the House would then approve a motion to go to conference with the Senate and a motion to name and approve its conferees. Also under the normal option, the House conferees would be the more senior members of the House Agriculture Committee, including especially the Subcommittee chairs and ranking members.
Farm bill observers are closely watching whether House conferees, if they are named, will be expanded to include Members from outside of the Agriculture Committee, and especially whether leading Republicans that championed big policy changes and budget cuts to SNAP (the food stamp program) will be named to the conference. If that happens, it probably indicates an even rockier road for a House-Senate conference committee to reach agreement on a final bill than may otherwise be the case.
Another option is what we might call the hedge-your-bets option. Under this option, the House receives the Senate request for a conference but does not act on it, at least not formally. Instead, the House majority leadership directs that there be behind-the-scenes, closed-door negotiations over the terms of a final bill, but not with official conferees or an official conference open to the public under sunshine rules. Under the hedge-your-bets option, they may at some point later this fall vote to go to conference, but only if an agreement that could pass in the House seems within reach at that time.
We may not know which option (or further permutations) will be chosen for another week or more, depending on how fast the Senate responds, assuming the House does re-marry its two bills this weekend, and then how quickly House Republican leadership coalesces on a game plan.
Continuing Resolution Machinations
The Senate voted today by a strict party-line 54-46 vote to amend the House-passed Continuing Resolution (short term government funding bill) that (1) strips the House provision that would defund the Affordable Care Act, (2) strips the House provision that would prioritize debt payments over other government functions in the event the US goes into default if Congress does not raise the debt limit later in October, and (3) reduces the length of the short term funding extension to November 15 instead of the House CR’s December 15 date.
The Senate CR would duplicate the House version by capping total government spending at $987 billion. This is far lower than the level Senate Democrats have wanted for the Fiscal Year 2014 appropriations bills. The Senate-passed budget calls for eliminating the existing across-the-board spending cuts (sequester), but — with little time left to avoid a government shutdown — they have for now put off the demand to shut off the sequester.
If the $987 billion level were kept in place when Congress negotiates a long-term CR later this fall, and if the sequestration process is left in place in that long-term CR, federal spending will automatically fall by an additional $20 billion in January, with all $20 billion coming out of the Defense budget. That $20 billion defense cut is required by the budget law governing sequestration.
The Senate CR approved today also modifies the House CR by eliminating the so-called Monsanto Protection Act, a policy rider that was attached to the FY 2013 CR and continued in the House-passed FY 2014 CR. This rider would, in violation of the principles of separation of powers and judicial review, force USDA to deregulate genetically modified crops even in the case of a court ruling invalidating or vacating such a deregulation. NSAC supports the Senate action to strike this pernicious rider.
Unfortunately, the Senate CR does not eliminate another equally harmful policy rider, leaving in place a rider that overrides the farm bill and denies poultry and livestock producers a variety of protections under the Packers and Stockyards Act. The extremist rider, sought by Tyson and other meat industry giants, forces USDA to rescind existing rules that protect farmers operating under contract. NSAC strongly opposes this rider, as well as a related provision in the House-passed farm bill.
The House Republican Caucus will now spend the weekend trying to decide whether to accept the Senate version of the CR — a prospect that at this point seems unlikely — or to develop a new set of demands that might be able to gain support from the vast majority of House Republicans and thus pass the House. If they opt for the latter and they succeed, the Senate would then be called on to again take up the House bill and modify it and continue to play ping-pong with the CR. Under that scenario, a government shutdown will likely begin at midnight on Monday.