This week could be pivotal not only for the future of the farm bill, but also the direction for the rest of this Congress.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has to decide how to proceed on advancing the farm bill following the unprecedented defeat of the legislation on the House floor on June 20. Does he seek compromise with Democrats and members of his party who back the Agriculture Committee bill? Or will Boehner go along with a strategy to find enough votes within the Republican caucus by dividing the nutrition and farm programs?
If Boehner seeks to draw more than 24 votes from Democrats, he would have to moderate some of the provisions added in amendments, particularly on the cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- food stamps. Some of the amendments added to the bill poisoned the well for many Democrats, including provisions to allow drug testing and require minimum work requirements for able-bodied people, similar to current requirements for cash welfare assistance.
But a strong contingent in the GOP believes dividing the bill is the better option for a GOP bill. Those efforts are supported by groups such as Club for Growth and Heritage Foundation that have a history of outright opposition to farm subsidies. Yet, now these groups have garnered support by focusing most of their attacks on nutrition programs.
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The clout of farm groups also is now at stake. After nearly two years of trying to get a farm bill, the defeat last month raised more questions about the political clout of agriculture. The New York Times last week was among those highlighting the division over the bill and lack of congressional districts with heavy agricultural bases. In reality, the challenges with the farm bill reflect the division of the broad array of special-interest groups focusing more heavily on just trying to stem budget cuts to their own area of legislation. In response, more than 500 groups joined a letter last week trying to stress to Boehner that they want a full, undivided farm bill to pass.
Another problem becoming more obvious with Congress in recent years is that there is little or no ability for House leaders to horse trade for votes like in the past. The elimination of earmarks in legislation such as the farm bill takes away some of the effectiveness of working the floor for a few extra votes.
The House bill, as put together, is projected to cut the growth of spending by about $40 billion over 10 years.
Keep in mind, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have been working on their own versions of the farm bill two years now. The committees began in summer 2011 trying to respond to the now-defunct, pre-sequestration "Supercommittee." In November 2011, the committees had an outline for $23 billion in cuts to offer the deficit-cutting committee that failed to come to terms on anything else.
The 2008 farm bill originally expired last Oct. 1. Most disaster programs for farmers and livestock producers also expired then as well.
The meat and potatoes of the legislation --- SNAP, commodity and conservation programs --- were extended until this Sept. 30 as part of the tax and fiscal-cliff agreement last January. That extension largely was adopted because Congress feared price spikes for milk and didn't want to get blamed. Roughly 40 programs were extended without funding ranging from the Grassland Reserve Program to beginning farmer programs and others for specialty crops, organics and areas such as rural development.
The Senate had voted out its version of the farm bill more than a year ago. Senators repeated the process in May and early June. The Senate bill, officially called the "Agriculture Reform, food and Jobs Act of 2013," is projected to cost $955 billion over 10 years, but would still reduce estimated spending by as much as $24 billion compared to current programs.
With floor debates on immigration and the debt ceiling coming up in the fall, it will be critical to see what congressmen learned on their holiday break about the farm bill. Will enough of lawmakers from either party going to want to come home for their August break and say they got a farm bill passed?
I can be found on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN.
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