House Passes Partial Farm Bill on Second Try

By National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

The House of Representatives on July 11 passed a farm bill, minus the nutrition title, by a vote of 216-208. No Democrats voted for the bill, while just 12 Republicans voted against it. Six Republicans and five Democrats were not present to vote.

The bill approved today contained all the titles of the farm bill other than nutrition, and was inclusive of all the amendments that passed on the floor of the House when they defeated the farm bill earlier. The historic payment limitation reform provision, championed by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), was thus included in the measure.

NSAC had earlier urged the House to not split the farm bill, as did most farm and commodity groups.

Removal of the nutrition title, including the SNAP (food stamp) program, led to the purely partisan vote and to the hyper partisan nature of the floor debate.

The bill proceeded under a closed rule that allowed for no amendments. The vote to adopt the rule was223-195, again with no Democrats in the affirmative, joined by just one Republican.

What happens next for nutrition programs, and for the bill as a whole, is one great big question mark.

Rules Committee Chair Pete Sessions (R-TX) and Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) alternatively described the plan going forward as:

(a) passing this farm-only bill (which they strangely referred to repeatedly on the floor as the “farm bill farm bill”) and going immediately to conference with the Senate-passed comprehensive bill, with the result that the Senate nutrition title (and its modest cuts to SNAP) would likely prevail and be included in the final bill, and

(b) the House Agriculture Committee going back to the drawing board and crafting an entirely new nutrition-only second farm bill that would be brought back to the floor of the House and presumably include even bigger cuts to SNAP than those included in the bill defeated by the House earlier.

These would appear to be mutually exclusive options, yet were spoken about openly as if they could logically both take place at the same time.

NSAC’s position on how to move forward is clear. In a statement issued after passage of the bill today, we had this to say:

NSAC wants a new, comprehensive five-year farm bill that is signed into law this year. It is unclear whether today’s passage of a portion of the farm bill in the House of Representatives is a step toward that goal or not. If it was merely a face-saving effort following the defeat of the new farm bill a few weeks ago – with no intent to move the entire process forward – then today’s vote was quite simply a travesty. If instead the House intends to immediately enter into conference with the Senate on a comprehensive farm bill and proceed to a final vote later this summer on a comprehensive bill, then this is a step forward – despite the bill’s very serious flaws and despite the deeply flawed process that produced it. We urge an immediate start to conference, with a goal of producing a final, comprehensive bill, including nutrition, that can be passed and sent to the President for his signature later this summer.

Another option — one that was not clearly articulated in the debate but was at one point hinted at by Chairman Lucas — is that in return for voting for the bill, Republicans who had earlier voted against the farm bill were promised a rule and set of amendments during the upcoming floor debate on the Fiscal Year 2014 Agricultural Appropriations bill that would allow for cutting SNAP spending and changing SNAP policies.

Bait and Switch Changes to “Permanent Law”

The bill passed today included a set of changes that were not included in the bill as reported by the House Agriculture Committee and were not adopted earlier on the House floor.  Instead, they were simply added by the Rules Committee last night, without debate and never having been adopted by the Agriculture Committee.

These changes would remove a long-standing feature of the farm bill commodity title.  Farm bills historically have happened on a very regular schedule, spaced about four to six years apart, in part because if a new bill is not adopted, farm commodity law automatically reverts to the farm bills of 1938 and 1949. Those anachronistic laws are considered so unworkable now that the mere threat of reverting to them is viewed as a spur to congressional action on a new farm bill.

The bill passed today would repeal most of those laws and would, instead, make the changes to commodity subsidies included in the new 2013 bill permanent law. Hence, from the standpoint of commodity subsidies, a new farm bill in the future would never be needed, as the commodity subsidies enacted by law in 2013 would become permanent, with no sunset date. Crop and revenue insurance subsidies, moreover, already are permanent under existing statute.

Thus, under the House bill passed today, all commodity subsidies would be permanent and would never need to be reauthorized or modified. That would not be true for the rest of the farm bill — conservation, rural development, renewable energy, research and extension, etc. Those would require periodic renewal, and could quite possibly be left in the lurch in the absence of a pressing need to renew production subsidies.

Many of the same conservative right wing think tanks and action groups who were beating the drum for weeks in support of splitting the nutrition title off from the farm-portions of the farm bill suddenly did an about-face and opposed the measure passed today once they realized that there would be no subsidy reform amendments allowed and that, adding insult to injury, subsidies would be put on autopilot.

With classic DC irony, most of the same Republicans who a few weeks ago voted unsuccessfully to unravel the decades-old sugar program today voted for a bill that not only keeps the old sugar program in place, but now makes it permanent law, meaning it need never come up for a vote again in order to remain in place.

Amendments Submitted

Despite the closed rule which allowed for no amendments to be offered, several Democrats and one Republican nonetheless filed crop insurance reform amendments. These of course were never voted on, but included among others an amendment to cap annual crop insurance subsidies at $50,000 per farm and limit beneficiaries to farmers actively engaged in farming, submitted by Reps. DeLauro (D-CT), Blumenauer (D-OR), Petri (R-WI), and Kind (D-WI).

Groups Take Differing Positions

The two major general farm organizations – American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union – both opposed the bill. The National Corn Growers Association, National Pork Producers Council, and National Council of Farmer Cooperatives issued statements in support, and groups representing cotton, rice, sugar, and peanut growers were also supporting passage according to Capitol Hill staffers.

As mentioned above, most of the major conservative think tanks and major conservative taxpayer groups opposed the bill, after originally supporting splitting the farm bill into two bills.  In one of the more humorous moments in an otherwise highly charged floor debate, Rep. Blumenauer (D-OR) said to the Republican side of the aisle, “You have managed to unite the Environmental Working Group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the Club for Growth in opposition to this bill.  Congratulations!”

Equity Statement

Following passage of the bill today, 80 organizations, including NSAC, joined forces and issued aStatement of Community Based Groups on State of the 2013 Farm Bill expressing outrage at the failure of the bill to address food security and to include significant farm safety net reform. The letter nonetheless urged the House to immediately appoint conferees to work with their Senate counterparts to adopt a full and fair Farm Bill by the end of this summer. The statement opposes SNAP cuts, supports farm subsidy reform, and urges inclusion of robust funding for programs that assist under-served segments of the food and agricultural system.

What’s Next?

The short answer is no one knows, or perhaps those who do know are not talking about it yet. NSAC will be pressing the case for the House and Senate to appoint conferees next week to begin a conference committee to hash out a final, comprehensive bill.

There are only 20 legislative days left before the current farm bill expires on September 30. That is enough time to conference a bill and approve a conference report and send a bill to the President, but only if they get started right away.

Whether that move – spoken about affirmatively by Chairman Lucas during the debate today – is in the cards or not remains to be seen. The only thing that is clear is there is precious little time to decide if there is going to be a real chance of finishing a new comprehensive bill this year.