IF ever the nation needed some indication that the government can function, it is now, and finally, we saw a glimmer of hope that, in an era where legislators seem to have difficulty agreeing even on what time of day it is, they actually came together and passed legislation important to jobs, the economy and agriculture.
Last week, the House put up an overwhelmingly strong vote of 417-3 to pass the blueprint for inland waterway funding. The Senate passed its version May 15 by a vote of 83-14. The last time a waterway bill was authorized was in 2007, and it actually passed with a super majority then, too, in order to override a presidential veto.
"The vote offers encouragement that members of Congress validate the importance of inland waterways and the role it plays in our economy," explained Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.
There's no word yet on when a conference process could start. Steenhoek said he doesn't expect the conference to be contentious, with differences "quite manageable," and a final bill could make it to the President's desk by the end of the year.
The Oct. 24 weekly update from the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) expressed less optimism, saying the conference work is "expected to be somewhat bumpy due to differing provisions and spending priorities."
The House version would spend about $8 billon on waterway development projects such as deepening waterways and lock and dam repair and upgrades. The bill also contains provisions intended to speed up the project review process, which should improve the efficiency of shipping goods. The Senate version is worth about $12 billion.
Steenhoek noted that transportation doesn't have to be a partisan issue, but as of recently, it has fallen prey to the strong partisanship that has encumbered so many issues.
One of the biggest issues falling prey to that partisanship is the farm bill.
The anticipated duel over those deeply entrenched politics on farm policy will occur within the first farm bill conference committee meeting scheduled for 1 p.m. Oct. 30. (The meeting will be webcast via the agriculture committee websites.)
The 41 members of the conference committee, led by House Agriculture Committee chair Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) and Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), will begin their public work with opening statements, which could last for several hours.
Reports indicate that conferees have agreed on as many relatively minor issues as possible outside of the public eye and before official work begins.
However, the biggest sticking points remain: Title I programs, dairy assistance and spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps).
"Unless they work swiftly, the calendar will also soon become an enemy of conferees. Just nine weeks remain in 2013, several of which will be consumed by holidays, and both chambers will soon also face decisions on fiscal priorities, including (fiscal) 2014 spending beyond Jan. 15," NAWG said.
A final solution for the farm bill will require big thinking from the conferee members and a commitment from Congress to put partisan politics aside and advance a bipartisan compromise that can garner enough votes in both chambers to reach the President's desk.