The House may not be able to finish work on the farm bill by Thursday as leaders of the Agriculture Committee had hoped before debate on the massive measure began Tuesday, largely because of a pileup of amendments that could require as many as 50 roll-call votes in two days.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., had said Monday they were determined to finish the bill by 3 p.m. Thursday, the time that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has set for the final votes of the week. But a knowledgeable Democratic aide said Tuesday that the plan looked increasingly unrealistic.
It was also unclear as the debate started whether the votes exist to pass the bill at any time.
By late Tuesday, the House Rules Committee had not issued a list of amendments that will be considered on the floor, but a Democratic aide said it appeared the committee planned to allow 90 amendments and that the leadership hoped about half of those could be voice-voted. That would leave between 40 and 50 votes that would require roll calls, a high number to get through in two days. Lucas and Peterson might have to wait until next week for a final vote on the bill. The House is scheduled to begin its Independence Day recess on June 27 and return July 8.
The real question is whether congressional leaders have the votes to pass the bill. “It is not clear to anyone if there is a path to 218 or how to get there,” the Democratic aide said.
The big problem, the aide noted, is that the amendments—ranging from reversing or increasing a proposed Republican cut in the food-stamp program to putting restrictions on crop insurance—seem more likely to discourage votes for final passage than improve them. In the past, members have used amendments to get things for their districts that constituents wanted, but this year the tea-party Republicans who want to cut government appear to be dominating the process.
Republicans are also under pressure to pass a farm bill, and there is the prospect that Congress might not extend the expiring 2008 farm bill for another year. That could mean an end to the direct-payment program for crop-growers; cuts to the food-stamp and crop-insurance programs; and no improvements to conservation programs, incentives for fruit and vegetable growers and farmers markets, or efforts to fight childhood obesity.
In opening statements, Lucas noted that Peterson, his predecessor as Agriculture Committee chairman, had begun the process of writing the farm bill four years ago with a series of hearings. The Agriculture panel passed a bill last year, but the House Republican leadership chose not to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. The Senate has already passed a bill this year, so there is intense pressure for the House to pass a bill that can go to conference with the Senate.
Referring to the bill by its official name, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013, Lucas said, “The FARRM Act is a different farm bill for different times. There is a reason we put reform in the title. This is the most reform-minded bill in decades. It repeals outdated policies while reforming, streamlining, and consolidating over 100 government programs. It reforms the SNAP program—also known as the food-stamp program—for the first time since the welfare reforms of 1996. And, it makes tremendous reforms to farm programs.”
Peterson said the bill reflects the House Agriculture Committee’s bipartisan tradition.
“It is a compromise between commodities and regions, and urban and rural members,” he said. “I didn’t get everything I wanted; Chairman Lucas didn’t get everything he wanted, but that’s how the legislative process is supposed to work.”
Peterson also noted that while the bill cuts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by $20 billion over 10 years—more than most Democrats want—it also provides more money for commodity-distribution programs, increases funding for specialty-crop block grants, provides support for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, and authorizes the very first check-off program to collect money from organic producers for research and promotion.
The House Rules Committee promised to post its rule and the amendments it puts in order on the committee website, but the process of testimony and committee consideration threatened to go late into the night.
Some 42 members of the House asked to appear before the committee, which met for hours Tuesday to listen to them. Most of the testimony repeated statements from hearings and press conferences from the past four years, but there were some surprises.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, presented an amendment to end the prohibition on credit sales of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba. Rangel said the removal of the ban on credit sales would “give a shot in the arm” to U.S. farmers.
This article appears in the June 19, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Farm-Bill Optimism Wanes as Amendments Pile Up.