DO you go to the right, do you go to the left or do you do what always has worked and try to go down the middle again?
That really is the question House legislators face as they regroup after the Fourth of July recess to formulate the right equation for getting a farm bill passed.
Since the House defeated H.R. 1947 on June 20, reports have continually alluded to House leaders considering options to bring the legislation back for debate and another vote on passage; one option includes splitting the farm bill into two separate measures: one for food stamps and other nutrition programs and another for farm programs.
That idea doesn't fly for a broad coalition of 532 agricultural, conservation, rural development, finance, forestry, energy and crop insurance companies and organizations that sent a letter July 2 to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio) calling on him to bring the farm bill back to the floor as soon as possible and in a bipartisan manner.
"Farm bills represent a delicate balance between America's farm, nutrition, conservation and other priorities and, accordingly, require strong, bipartisan support," the groups wrote. "We believe that splitting the nutrition title from the rest of the bill could result in neither farm nor nutrition programs passing and urge you to move a unified farm bill forward."
The House is made up of 234 Republicans and 201 Democrats, and the magic number for passage is 218. The farm bill failed by a vote of 195-234.
House Agriculture Committee leaders shepherded the farm bill to the floor under the presumption that Democrats would come on board in support of the bill. In the end, only 24 Democrats voted for it, but on the other hand, 62 Republicans did not support the bill, including five committee chairmen who bucked the leadership.
Brad Lubben, policy specialist at the University of Nebraska, explained that a farm-only bill may give the House a means to conference with the Senate and negotiate an omnibus bill. The problem with that approach, however, is that it likely would require legislators to track much further to the right.
In the nutrition title, that could mean as much as $60 billion in cuts. On the farm side, there likely would be more impetus to rein in costs on crop insurance, something commodity groups have opposed, Lubben noted.
The political calculus of reintroducing the House farm bill with limited debate may make it easier to move a farm-only bill.
Lubben noted that he's somewhat surprised that the idea of two separate bills has gained as much momentum as it has so far, but he sees it as a short-term strategy, not a long-term one.
"The House Agriculture Committee doesn't want to divorce farm and food. I don't think the final product will actually leave that behind. I venture that separating the bills is a strategy to get to conference, not a strategy to get a final bill that is a farm-only bill," Lubben said.
"The conference will create a new arena for debate and negotiations amongst leadership to formulate a package with a feasible chance of passage," he added.
It's up to House leaders to see if they can get the formula right the next time.