Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last week proposed officially what many agricultural lawmakers and lobbyists have been expecting for a couple of years: The farm bill could be included in a much larger budget package.
In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Reid suggested that if the House passed the Senate resolution to reopen the government, it could be followed by large-scale negotiations on budget policies. "You and your colleagues have repeatedly cited these fiscal issues as the things on which we need to work," Reid wrote in his Wednesday letter. "This conference would be an appropriate place to have these discussions, where participants could raise whatever proposals — such as tax reform, health care, agriculture, and certainly discretionary spending like veterans, national parks, and NIH — they feel appropriate."
Boehner rejected Reid's proposal, but the next day at a news conference, Reid followed up on his one-word mention of agriculture by saying, "The farm bill's hung up. We'll talk about that."
American Farm Bureau Federation lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher said she was heartened by Reid's statements. "It appears likely that the farm bill may not be able to pass as a stand-alone bill, so if Majority Leader Reid believes we can get a good bill that combines nutrition and agriculture into one package and can pass by adding it to other bills, that is good news. The sooner we can pass the farm bill, the better," Thatcher said in an email.
Some lawmakers may not be willing to turn the farm bill over to the House and Senate leadership and the White House, but pressure is mounting to pass a new bill one way or another rather than extend the 2008 farm bill again.
A House GOP aide said Republicans still want a regular conference and a stand-alone conference report to be considered on the floors of the House and Senate. "The farm bill has hit snags, but it is not hung up today," the aide said.
Whether the farm bill is stand-alone or in a broader package may depend on what kind of conferees Boehner appoints. Last week, the House sent the Senate a bill that combined its separately passed farm and nutrition bills, and Reid quickly got unanimous consent to reappoint the conferees he had named when the House sent over its initial farm-program bill. Reid then sent the House a message requesting a conference.
The House GOP aide said conferees for that chamber are expected to be appointed shortly, but gave no indication of whether Boehner would follow tradition and tap members of the House Agriculture Committee or would bow to pressure and appoint tea-party Republicans who want to make deep cuts in farm programs and food stamps. Lobbyists expect Boehner to appoint some conservatives, but the real questions are whether he appoints conservatives willing to negotiate or whether he appoints so many conservatives that he would have a hard time getting enough signatures to approve a conference report.
As National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson put it in a letter to Boehner, "The fate of the farm bill is now in your hands. With the budget and debt ceiling discussions looming, the farm bill may be the very best opportunity for any major, forward-looking legislation to pass this year."
The biggest issue, of course, is food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Over the past two years, the farm bill has gotten more and more caught up in stratospheric partisan politics. The Senate farm bill would cut the program by $4 billion over 10 years while the House farm bill would cut it by $39 billion in the same period; remove several million people from the program in the next few years; and subject SNAP to reauthorization in three years versus the five years for other farm programs. The Senate's comprehensive farm bill passed on a bipartisan basis in June, while the two House bills passed with only Republican votes.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., has said repeatedly that Boehner, Reid, and President Obama will have to settle the size of the cut in food stamps. If the three can agree and farm-bill conferees can accept guidance from on high, then a regular farm-bill conference can work. If they won't, the farm bill may well end up in a larger must-pass package. Then the politicians can say they had to accept the food-stamp cut whether they thought it was too big or too small in order to pass the larger bill.
Meanwhile, farm lobbyists keep talking about another extension, but the prospects for an extension like last year's are dimming.
Last week, a bipartisan group of 20 senators wrote Reid and McConnell that they will not support a farm-bill extension that includes the direct payments. The letter was organized by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and signed by senators ranging from Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. "Without regard to whether we supported the Senate farm bill or opposed it, we all agree that Congress should not consider another extension of the 2008 farm bill that continues direct payments," the senators wrote. "Such an outcome would represent a costly regression in light of the U.S. Senate's bipartisan efforts to eliminate this multibillion dollar subsidy," the letter said.
Pressure is also mounting from outside Congress to pass a new bill. The House and Senate versions of the farm bill include a new cotton program that is supposed to resolve a case against the U.S. cotton program that the United States lost to Brazil in the World Trade Organization.
There is also the issue of the "dairy cliff." The expiration of the extension of the 2008 farm bill on Sept. 30 left farm programs in the same situation they were a year ago, with the Agriculture Department faced with buying milk at high prices under a 1949 law starting next year if Congress doesn't act. Fixing "the dairy cliff" as it was called would require a budgetary fix that would force Congress to look for another program to cut.
But the bigger issue is that the current dairy program isn't working very well and won't solve dairy farmers' long-term problems. And another extension would do nothing for livestock producers who don't have a disaster program, for conservation programs that need updating, for organic and fruit and vegetable producers who need new research programs, or for the farmers' markets that need assistance to help low-income people buy healthy food.
There will, of course, be pressure from the left and right against finishing the bill. Antihunger groups don't want any cuts to food stamps. Heritage Action for America, which caused a ruckus among Republicans because the group urged House Republicans to split the farm bill into two pieces and then opposed the bills, has come out in favor of an extension and against any grand bargain.
Lucas has said conservative groups like Heritage Action and Club for Growth just want to drag debate out so they can raise more money. But Heritage employees have now been banned from Republican Study Committee meetings and their statements could backfire. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., told the United Fresh Produce Association last week that conservative groups had put out inaccurate information and created "challenges" in passing the farm bill. It was one thing to vote on issues, Scott said, another to vote on "how the conservative groups score you."
All in all, the prospects for a new farm bill as stand-alone legislation or part of a larger package have risen even in the midst of the shutdown.
Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive director of The Hagstrom Report, which may be found at www.HagstromReport.com.