Whether it was a victory for "much-needed reform" or a legislative charade aimed at preventing another embarrassment for House Republican leaders, the razor-thin passage Thursday of a farm bill without any authorization for food stamp and nutrition programs begs a question: What happens now?
"The bill passed by the House today is not a real farm bill and is an insult to rural America," Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Thursday after the House vote. Still, she said the Senate is ready to negotiate with the House to try and reconcile a final two-chamber version.
But of that next step, said Stabenow, "We will go to conference with the bipartisan, comprehensive farm bill that was passed in the Senate that not only reforms programs, supports families in need and creates agriculture jobs, but also saves billions more than the extremely flawed House bill."
House Republicans were forced to rely entirely on themselves to succeed in their second attempt to approve a five-year farm bill, 216-208.
Not a single House Democrat joined in backing the measure, many of them incensed that food-aid policy had been suddenly stripped from the bill. "This is wrong," said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "Taking food out of the mouth of babies—I don't think so."
In fact, putting the scaled-down farm bill on the floor for a vote was a gamble by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other House Republican leaders, but one that seems to have paid off, for now. A defeat would have meant a second failure, on the heels of the last month's unexpected defeat of a broader version of the bill.
That original $940 billion version did include authorization for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, as well with authorization for agriculture programs. The nutritional aspects had represented about 80 percent of the original bill's costs. But even with 26 Democrats voting for it, it was defeated because 62 Republicans did not. Only 12 Republicans opposed even the stripped-down bill on Thursday.
Still, food stamps remain a major aspect of the already Senate-passed bill, and Democrats who control that chamber aren't likely to go along with the Republican approach.
The Senate-passed version of a more traditional farm bill cuts nearly $4 billion from SNAP over 10 years; the original House bill would have slashed $20.5 billion from the food stamp program over the same period.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said shortly after the vote that House GOP leaders are having discussions on how to "expedite" an agreement on a final bill with the Senate. Cantor also said on the House floor they plan to "act with dispatch" on passing a bill dealing with the food stamp program—echoing House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla.
But Cantor did not give a specific time frame. It was unclear if House Republicans would put forth a bill covering nutrition programs before going to conference with the Senate.
In a statement, Cantor said, "the work will continue now, and we hope Senate Democrats will not obstruct reform because the status quo isn't working." In a separate statement, Boehner said, "I'm pleased the House took a positive first step forward in providing some much-need reforms to our farm programs today. Reforming our food stamp programs is also essential."
But House Democrats were skeptical of the House Republicans' real intentions. They note that some conservatives have been pushing hard for reconsideration of the entire farm bill.
Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., boasted on the House floor Thursday, "This is the first farm-only farm bill in 40 years.... Today, we can pass a bill that sends a clear message: The days of deceptively named, budget-busting bills are over."
Some Democrats the GOP maneuvering is ultimately about political messaging and, possibly, letting funding for food stamps sunset. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he believes the split bill was brought to the floor only so Republicans can accomplish one objective—"to make it appear that Republicans are moving forward with important legislation even while they continue to struggle at governing."
And Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., also said he doubts that Republican leaders, in fact, really intend to bring back to the House floor any bill that the Senate and House conference might hammer out—especially if the conference report is closer to the Senate bill and has significant Democratic support, but not as much support from Republicans.
Asked about whether he'd bring such a conference report to the floor, Boehner responded, "If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, everyday would be Christmas."
Whatever the ultimate goal of the House Republican strategy, other changes made to the House GOP's original bill to attract more Republican votes were also drawing fire, including from conservative and conservation groups.
For instance, Heritage Action sent out a statement objecting to the bill's repeal of a law that has required Congress to reauthorize farm funding every five years or the legal language governing farm programs would automatically revert to what was in place in 1949. Instead of meaningful reform, a statement from Heritage said it would create a new law that would prevent lawmakers in an even broader way from reconsidering, in the form of regular reauthorization, some farm policies.
"Instead, market-distorting programs would continue indefinitely, like the government-imposed tariffs on sugar imports and quotas on domestic sugar production, which cause Americans to pay two to four times higher prices for sugar than consumers in other countries," said Heritage.
A statement from the Environmental Working Group similarly panned the bill, explaining, "At a time of record farm income and record federal deficits, the House bill increases unlimited crop insurance subsidies by more than $9 billion and creates special insurance subsidies for both cotton and peanut farmers." It said the bill would make these expanded subsidies permanent, even as it allows conservation and other critical programs to expire in 2018.
For its part, the White House said President Obama would not sign any final bill reflecting the House Republican approach only, if one reached his desk.
A statement released Wednesday night said the House bill does not contain sufficient commodity and crop insurance reforms and does not invest in renewable energy, an important source of jobs and economic growth in rural communities across the country. And it added, "This bill also fails to reauthorize nutrition programs, which benefit millions of Americans—in rural, suburban and urban areas alike. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a cornerstone of our Nation's food assistance safety net, and should not be left behind as the rest of the Farm Bill advances."
This article appears in the July 12, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.