Before 2013, the modern version of the federal farm bill had never been voted down on the floor the House of Representatives. Today is a historic day, because it marks the second time in history – but also the second time in just five years – that a farm bill has been defeated on the House floor. On Friday, May 18, the House’s draft 2018 Farm Bill was voted down 198-213, with all Democrats and 30 Republicans, a mixture of moderates and hard right members, voting against.
For more than a month, the House of Representatives has been debating their draft bill, H.R. 2, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018. It all began with the release of the House Agriculture Committee’s draft bill on April 12, and was followed by the bill’s passage in Committee less than a week later on April 18.
In the weeks since House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX) released his draft bill, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has published a series of statements on the most problematic pieces of the legislation. These particularly egregious provisions included dangerous changes being proposed for conservation programs, “tiny but mighty” rural development and entrepreneurship programs, and subsidy limitations. Yesterday, as the full House began to debate amendments to the bill, NSAC issued the following statement urging Members of the House to vote against H.R. 2.
Thanks to robust advocacy by NSAC and our many allies in the family farm and sustainable agriculture communities, we have helped defeat the bill. That is far from the end of the story, however. The leaders of the House Majority party will now try to determine whether there is a path forward for bringing H.R. 2 back to the floor for another vote. If they are to succeed, deals will need to be cut with the House Freedom Caucus as well as more moderate Republicans, who together accounted for nearly all of the Republican nays on the bill. Otherwise, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX) will need to go back to the drawing board and work with Committee Democrats to craft a bipartisan farm bill that can on the House floor.
Those negotiations will focus somewhat on the farm bill, but even more so on immigration issues which are splitting the GOP caucus and may prove just as difficult to move forward on as the farm bill has proven to be if the caucus remains determined, as it seems to be, to pass one or both measures on a strictly partisan basis. Many Republic moderates are attempting to find a way to approve a bill to help the Dreamers, even if it means relying on Democratic votes. But that is anathema to GOP leadership and to the Freedom Caucus. Key Freedom Caucus members insisted on a vote on the most anti-immigrant bill pending in Congress prior to voting for a farm bill. If and how these tensions get resolved remain to be seen.
How We Got Here
On Wednesday, May 16, the House Rules Committee met to determine which amendments it would allow to come to the House floor during House consideration of H.R. 2. Late on Thursday, the Rules Committee voted to allow the full House to vote on 51 amendments – just over half the total amendments that had been put forward by Representatives.
We were extremely disappointment that the Rules Committee decided not to allow debate on a set of pro-family farm amendments to reform the farm safety net. Those amendments, if approved, would have strengthened payment and income limitations to prevent unlimited, unchecked taxpayer subsidies for the wealthiest mega-farms. As the farm bill process progresses, we will continue to work with Congress to ensure that commodity and crop insurance subsidies are fair, fiscally sound, and pro-family farmer.
The consideration of the 51 amendments allowed by the Rules Committee started on Thursday, and continued through to Friday morning. Some amendments were approved by voice vote, and others were approved or rejected by roll call vote.
Before the bill was defeated, the House approved two amendments supported by NSAC, including an amendment offered by Representative John Faso (R-NY) to improve the measurement and reporting of conservation program outcomes. The Faso amendment was based on the Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act (H.R. 4751), which NSAC helped to develop, and was introduced by Representatives Faso and Marcia Fudge (D-OH) in January 2018.
The House also approved by voice vote an amendment offered by Representatives Ryan Costello (R-PA) and Tom Emmer (D-MN) directing USDA to designated, among existing staff, a beginning farmer and rancher coordinator in each state.
Fortunately, the House voted down an amendment offered by Representative Steve Russell (R-OK), which would have undermined the Value-Added Producer Grants Program (VAPG). The Russell amendment would have prohibited grants to farmers to turn their raw commodities into value-added alcohol products such as cider and craft beer. It would also have rescinded previously appropriated funding for the program.
What Comes Next
Immediately following the final vote on H.R. 2, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) began the process of filing a “motion to reconsider,” which would allow him to bring the bill back to the House for reconsideration. He then very quickly reversed course and postponed the motion to reconsider. Using that tactic, he now has two legislative days – until Tuesday next week – to resume the motion to reconsider, which, if passed, would allow a second vote on the farm bill. Ryan and his leadership team will likely only do so if they have assurances that a sufficient number of votes will be turned around to allow the bill to pass upon reconsideration. That in turn will likely require a deal on the farm bill and on immigration bills that somehow satisfies either the moderates, the far right, or both, in sufficient number for a second vote to allow the farm bill to squeak by on a thin, partisan vote.
If they are unable to reach a deal, Chairman Conaway could begin the process of debating a new version of the bill in committee. Given the enormous flaws included in H.R. 2, NSAC strongly urges the Agriculture Committee to go back to the drawing board to produce a House farm bill that closes subsidy loopholes, supports natural resource conservation, and works for our nation’s diverse and entrepreneurial small and mid-sized family farms.
On the Senate side, the Senate Agriculture Committee continues to work behind the scenes to attempt to produce a bipartisan farm bill that we hope addresses many NSAC’s aforementioned priorities. We expect to see a draft bill in the coming weeks, with a markup possible in the Senate Agriculture Committee sometime in June.
All the while, the clock will be ticking on finishing a new farm bill, in a time-short election year, by the September 30 expiration date of the current farm bill. If a bill cannot clear both the House and Senate, and the likely extreme differences between the two ironed out, by September, there will need to be an extension bill of some type and length to move the expiration date of the current farm bill to a later date.