This week was originally the week the House Agriculture Committee was going to debate and approve its version of the 2012 Farm Bill. Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK), however, postponed Committee “markup” after House Republican leadership indicated that the annual agricultural appropriations bill would be on the floor this week, realizing that Committee members would be needed to participate in the floor debate on the appropriations bill. With next week being the Fourth of July recess week for Congress, Lucas rescheduled markup for July 11.
Then three things happened. First, House majority leadership did not in fact bring up the agricultural appropriations bill this week. Second, they have now scheduled a debate and vote on repeal of the Affordable Care Act (the health care law) for July 11, in the aftermath of this week’s Supreme Court ruling. Third, word began to informally filter out this week with greater certainty that leadership does not intend to bring the farm bill to the floor for a vote this summer.
It seems like Chairman Lucas cannot buy a break. Undaunted, however, he is sticking to his revised schedule and says markup will begin July 11, with a draft bill out for review the latter part of next week.
Assuming that, despite the health care debate, he sticks to July 11 and that with Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) he successfully negotiates the committee markup process, and that a bill is reported out to the floor, the question then becomes what then? There are at least two possible answers.
New Bill or Extension?
Most optimistically, with both the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee having done their jobs, the House GOP leadership re-assesses and decides to provide the bill floor consideration after all. More likely, there is an extension of the current farm bill by, before, or not too long after its expiration on September 30.
If we are headed to an extension of current law, here too there are at least three possible options. There could be a short term, 3-month extension, with the hope that Congress, during the “lame duck” session after the November elections could somehow find a way to finish the bill — even if the House version has never gone to the floor for debate (more on that option below). There could also be a one-year extension, with both House and Senate starting the process all over again in the new two-year Congress starting in 2013. Or there could be a one-year extension that could be superseded if a lame duck option materializes.
Substantively, there are also two options for an extension bill. One would be a clean extension, with no changes to current law during the time of the extension. The other, and perhaps more likely, would be an extension with a limited number of changes to current law, either to deal with several immediate problems that a simple extension would not address or to make a down payment on deficit reduction, or perhaps a combination of both.
Lame Duck Bill?
The lame duck option most frequently talked about includes three primary elements, two of which are extraordinarily challenging.
First, the theory goes, the bill reported out of the House Agriculture Committee would never go to the House floor, but rather go directly into conference negotiations with the Senate-passed measure. This would require overcoming what would likely be loud, perhaps furious protests from some Members of Congress who will never be given a chance to offer amendments and try to work their will on the bill.
Second, a final version of the farm bill would need to be agreed to by the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, resolving their differences over commodity programs, food stamp cuts, and other smaller but no less important items in their respective bills. Most participants and observers of the process think this step, while not simple, should not be an impossible hurdle.
The third key element would then be attaching the bill negotiated between House and Senate Agriculture Committees to must-pass end of year legislation which could include: an omnibus appropriations bill to fund the government for 2013; measures to postpone or stop scheduled automatic defense and non-defense spending cuts scheduled to start January 1 under the terms of last summer’s Budget Control Act; extension of some or all of the Bush era tax cuts, as well as the Obama payroll tax cut; extension of expiring tax loopholes; and an increase in the debt limit. Whether any of this huge volume of work can be accomplished in the very limited time between mid-November and late December remains to be seen. Obviously adding a 1,000 plus page farm bill to the mix would not make it any easier — although at this point, the option certainly cannot be ruled out.
Of course, the two questionable assumptions about the lame duck option would not be relevant if the House leaders agreed to take up any bill reported out by the Agriculture Committee later in July. The Committee bill, however, will likely have far greater cuts to food stamp benefits than many moderates and liberals will agree to and far fewer than many conservatives will agree to. The Committee bill is also likely to have far less farm subsidy reform than many conservatives and liberals alike will support. Political calculations about the high degree of difficulty in even passing a farm bill on the House floor is certainly one of the ingredients in the leadership’s current unwillingness to bring the bill forward.
One of NSAC’s recommendations to Congress in 2008 was to under no circumstances have the 2008 Farm Bill expire in a presidential election year, because it would make passing a bill far more difficult. Alas, that recommendation was not accepted. We hope, though, that Congress proves us wrong and gets the bill done under normal order in spite of the 24/7 campaign mode they are now in. Its a tall order, but not impossible.