EVERYONE thought passage of the House's farm-only farm bill would set up an immediate call for conferencing the bill with the Senate's bill to help the two chambers settle what have become significant differences in how to handle crop price supports, dairy policy, nutrition spending and permanent law provisions.
Still, we should have known that things in Washington never are quite what they seem.
In a call with reporters last Monday, Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said the Senate was ready to go to conference with the House on a farm bill, but she hadn't seen anything from the House yet.
Stabenow said after the House passed its farm-only farm bill July 11, she was surprised that House leadership did not send over the bill. She added that the Senate even left the floor open later that day in anticipation of receiving the bill for conferencing.
Well, Tuesday arrived, and the House did indeed send over its farm bill, but conferees couldn't be named yet — another pothole in the road to passage.
All revenue-generating measures must officially have a House bill number (i.e., H.R. 2642). Procedurally, the Senate can take up the House bill, approve or amend it and then send it back to the House requesting a conference.
In the final hours of Senate action July 18, Stabenow jumped through yet another hoop to get the farm bill to conference. She asked for unanimous consent on H.R. 2642 and to have the text of the Senate's farm bill (S. 954) inserted instead.
"This is a very important step as we move forward in what I am very confident, despite the twists and turns, will result in a bipartisan farm bill," Stabenow said on the floor.
She officially sent the Senate bill to the House and requested a conference on the farm bill.
Each chamber will name conferees to settle the differences between the bills. Stabenow asked for a ratio of seven Democrats to five Republicans to represent the Senate side.
Stabenow stressed that time is of the essence since the farm bill expires in five legislative weeks. Starting July 22, Congress will be working only 19 more days.
It appears that House leadership would like to advance a nutrition title before moving to the formal conference, although there is no timeline for that work yet.
Meanwhile, reports indicate that discussions are being held in both chambers to ascertain members' concerns, and informal talks between agriculture-focused staff are ongoing.
Stabenow did express confidence that conferees could come together to produce a bill that would be bipartisan in both the House and Senate. Stabenow added that she will be negotiating with members who understand agriculture and rural America and said she is "not going to negotiate with extreme measures."
The House version included a provision that would make the 2013 commodity title new permanent law. Stabenow questioned how that would benefit agriculture in the long run and said there is great concern that this would remove the pressure to ensure that a comprehensive farm bill is updated every five years.
Stabenow said based on discussions with agricultural groups, the permanent law provision is a "very serious issue" that "ranks very high, if not the top concern, they have" about the House farm bill.