House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson grabbed some attention Monday when he suggested to National Grange members that the current farm bill being debated in Congress could be the last.
In a phone interview Tuesday, the Minnesota Democrat said he has explained in the past that farm and nutrition policy could largely operate on cruise control if the safety net were shifted more to crop insurance.
"This is not something new. I've been saying this since I was chairman," Peterson said. "I said when I was chairman that in five years we might only have crop insurance, maybe 10 years."
Peterson explained crop insurance doesn't need a farm bill because it's permanently authorized. Until 2008, crop insurance wasn't even part of the farm bill, but handled in separate legislation. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also has permanent authorization. Some of the major conservation programs also have permanent authorization, Peterson said.
"So, given the difficulty we are having here, I can see the scenario where we just don't get it done," he said.
Peterson notes half the House wasn't in office when Congress passed the 2008 farm bill. In fact, more than 40% of the House members have served less than three years.
"There is a question of whether we are going to have enough votes to pass it," Peterson said. "Nobody knows. Nobody has whipped it."
Peterson told National Grange members that some Republican members of Congress have told him "the high water mark" of Republicans who would back the farm bill is 150. Once again, a wing of the GOP would like to see more than the $20.5 billion in cuts to SNAP. At the same time, it will be a challenge mustering support among House Democrats who see the SNAP cuts as too high.
While the Hill newspaper reported Democrats in the Senate believe passing a farm bill could bolster their chances in rural America, Peterson said he doesn't think that's necessarily the case in the House. "Farmers are generally going to vote Republican and hope people like me get them a Democratic farm bill," he said.
Peterson noted the farm bill didn't help former Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who lost re-election in 2010 despite being chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and being a strong advocate for southern farmers.
While Peterson said he hasn't gotten a firm date on when the farm bill will come to the floor, the speculation around Washington aggies is that the House will debate the bill the week of June 17. Peterson said passage becomes more difficult if legislation doesn't get passed before the August break. "If we don't get the bill done this summer or early this fall, if we get into next year it's going to be very difficult to get it done in an election year," he said.
While Democrats might not get much credit if the bill passes, they wouldn't get the blame if it fails, either. "I think if the bill fails to pass the House, that will be laid at the feet of Republicans."
When asked if he plans to run for re-election, Peterson, who turns 69 later this month, said he continues raising money. There has been a lot of speculation Peterson could choose to retire. He indicated he is leaning that way.
"If I was leaning towards retirement, they have fixed 96% of that with their behavior around here," Peterson said.
(A spokeswoman for Peterson called to clarify his comments and assert that Peterson is inclined NOT to retire because of Republican behavior.)
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