Caution: Farm bill ahead

Caution: Farm bill ahead

THE Senate plans to resume its farm bill debate when it returns from the Memorial Day recess on June 3, while reports consistently say the House may take up its bill as soon as the week of June 17.

Although the farm bill seems to be on a smoother path than last year, roadblocks in the obstacle course remain.

Just days after the Senate Agriculture Committee passed its farm bill out of committee, the bill went to the full Senate for discussion, but only a dozen of the more than 200 amendments introduced were voted on.

At press time, a spokesperson said Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) was working on a timeline and path forward for the amendments. Hopes remain high that an agreement can be reached to narrow down the amendments and complete debate by the end of the week.

Food stamps could create either a roadblock for passage — like they did in 2012, with squabbles over how much is enough — or a way to gain support from urban members for final approval of the bill.

House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) said last week he has heard that a maximum of 150 Republicans will vote for the farm bill, meaning 70 or more House Democrats will have to vote for a bill that would change eligibility requirements for nutrition assistance, with program cuts proposed at $20 billion.

Last week, four members of the House Agriculture Committee — including three Republicans — were targeted by Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation. Radio ads painted the House farm bill as being more about food stamps than those who grow the crops.

The ad opens with: "You can put a tuxedo on a pig and call it Steve, ... but it's still a pig." The ad notes: "Only 20% of the funds would go to support farmers. The rest would go to bankroll President Obama's food stamp agenda."

House Agriculture Committee chair Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) was among those targeted, along with Reps. Martha Roby (R., Ala.) and Rick Crawford (R., Ark.). Rep. Mike McIntyre (D., N.C.) was the sole Democrat targeted due to his senior position on the committee.

Peter Matz of OFW Law explained that Heritage's strategy is to "aggravate splits in rural communities — and among younger GOP conservatives — over the direction of the five-year bill." He added that it underscores how much the farm bill debate will be a test of new and old forces inside the Republican Party. Both Crawford and Roby are newcomers to Congress.

"A key question in the House debate will be the loyalties of these relative newcomers, torn between the historic farm interests in their districts and the more ideological forces on the right like Heritage, which helped the GOP take back the House in 2010," Matz said.

Farm lobbyists assert that without the $80 billion per year devoted to the nutrition title, the remaining $20 billion for commodity programs, crop insurance, research and energy won't stand a chance of passing.

According to a recent op-ed from University of California-Davis agricultural economist Dan Sumner, that's the goal.

Sumner said, "My proposal is simple. This next farm bill should be the shortest in history. It should also be the last. Let's transfer the few programs that merit government attention to the appropriate legislation and department, and shut down the rest."

Farm bills have historically been bipartisan, but today's political environment continues to try to steer farm policy in new directions. The question is whether the agriculture committee leaders can manufacture a bill with the right balance to secure the President's signature.

Volume:85 Issue:22

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