When House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., went to the podium in June to ask lawmakers to vote for a new farm bill, he was in a kind of trouble that no other Agriculture chairman in recent memory has experienced.
After spending two years developing the bill, pushing Republican leadership to let him bring it to the floor, and managing more than 100 amendments in just two days, Lucas still had to beg for passage.
"I plead to you. I implore you to put aside whatever the latest e-mail is or the latest flyer is or whatever comment or rumor you've heard from people near you or around you," he said. "Assess the situation. Look at the bill. Vote with me to move this forward. If you care about the consumers, the producers, the citizens of this country, move this bill forward."
The appeal didn't work. The House voted against the farm bill 195-234, with six not voting. The defeat launched the legislation down a path that has wrought major changes on the process by which Congress addresses the farm bill every five years — changes that are still playing out this week.
In fact, the bill's fate remains uncertain this year. But for the House Agriculture Committee, the question is whether its difficult path is just one more case of House members stomping their feet and saying "No, no, no," or whether something fundamental has changed in the making of agricultural and nutrition policy. The answer may well be both.
As Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking member on the panel and its former chairman, put it, "We are in a big mess, and I don't know how we untangle this."
A LOT LESS FUN
Founded in 1820, the House Agriculture Committee is the oldest agriculture institution in Washington. As recently as 2008, the committee led the way for Congress to pass a farm bill that undergirded the most prosperous period in American agricultural history; paid out $17 billion to farmers last year during the worst drought in decades; and provided food stamps for 47 million Americans during the Great Recession.
Yet serving on the panel may be little fun these days, and even less politically rewarding.
The fight to renew the five-year farm bill — dominated by how much to cut from the food-stamp program — has been acrimonious in the House and could get more so as the bill goes to conference with the Senate. Meanwhile, the heavy involvement of House leadership in the Agriculture Committee's core issues, differences over agriculture and nutrition policy, and the declining ability of individual members to influence legislation generally have made a seat on the panel less attractive.
The average length of time lawmakers stay on the committee has declined, from a high of 10 years two decades ago to less than six today. For those who sit furthest from the chairman in the committee's impressive hearing room in the Longworth House Office Building, the rewards have been so few that one or two terms has seemed enough. Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., and Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, for example, both left this year to take seats on Appropriations, where they sit on the Agriculture Subcommittee.
For those who have stayed, such as Lucas and Peterson, leadership has been difficult. In the last Congress, Lucas frequently noted that half the members of his committee were new. This year, Lucas and Peterson had to struggle to fill the ranks. They eventually got up to 46, including 25 Republicans and 21 Democrats.
Lucas said the changes in committee membership "absolutely" concern him, although he noted that lawmakers have long preferred committees such as Ways and Means and Appropriations. "We may not be as sexy, we may not be as good at fundraising as other committees," he said. He also said the "roller-coaster turnover in general membership in the House" has played a role.
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The biggest problem with turnover, Lucas said, is that it denies the committee the institutional memory that helps write good farm bills. "It really does help to understand the subject matter you are voting on," he said.
Few new committee members come from farm families or agricultural backgrounds and they "are not quite as able to defend themselves from the pressure groups," Lucas said. By pressure groups, he means not only the farm lobbies but also conservative organizations such as the Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America, which criticize farm subsidies.
On his side of the aisle, Peterson has faced at least as much turnover as Lucas but seems less worried about the future. "I was concerned, but I like this group of people we have now. We've got some very good members. They are new to Congress, but they're not new to politics. They know a lot more about agriculture and the issues that we deal with than people realize."
Another result is that the Senate has gained ground on the House in agricultural policymaking. The House has traditionally passed a farm bill first, but in 2012 the Senate, whose Agriculture Committee includes several former chairmen and a former Agriculture secretary, was first to act. The House Agriculture Committee did pass a bill in 2012 by a large bipartisan majority, but with the controversy swirling around both farm subsidies and food stamps (formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), the House Republican leadership refused to bring it to the floor.
When Congress passed a yearlong extension at New Year's, it was a deal negotiated between Vice President Joe Biden, who didn't want a cut in SNAP benefits, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who wanted to continue the direct payments that crop farmers get whether prices are low or high. The House was largely left out of the negotiation.
A QUESTION OF RELEVANCE
Agriculture had to battle for attention in Congress even in the early days of the republic, when most people made a living growing food and fiber. In 1795, the House set up the Commerce Committee, but it took another 25 years before the Committee on Agriculture was established. The Senate did not set up its Agriculture Committee until 1825, and the Agriculture Department was not established until 1862. In sponsoring the 1820 resolution to set up the House committee, Rep. Lewis Williams of North Carolina called agriculture "the great leading and substantial interest in this country" but complained, "[W]hen agriculture is oppressed and makes complaint, what tribunal is this House to hear and determine on the grievances?"
The committee's greatest period of power came in the 1930s. With rural America suffering from the Great Depression, Congress passed President Roosevelt's New Deal farm programs, which attempted to equalize supply and demand, restore soil degraded by questionable farm practices, and bring electricity to rural populations. In the 1950s, Congress began passing short-term farm bills, usually for five-year periods, by suspending the 1938 and 1949 farm bills that have become known as "permanent law." The New Deal programs also included distribution of surplus commodities to the hungry; in the 1960s, the committee began to take hunger seriously with the creation of the food-stamp program, which had the added benefit of assuring votes from urban and suburban House members for the farm bill.
Today, the House Agriculture Committee's core problem appears to be a lack of relevance to many voters, even though the number of people who benefit from food stamps and commodity-distribution programs has swollen during the recession.
As the U.S. population continues to grow increasingly urban and suburban, the number of people who depend directly on agriculture — and the committee's programs — for a living declines while the food supply remains so plentiful and cheap that consumers can take it for granted. Food safety, organic and local food production, and the impact of obesity are hot topics, but the committee still focuses most of its attention on commodity programs and the regulation of the futures industry.
Perhaps the committee leadership's oddest decision over the years has been its lack of attention to food stamps, which represent more than 70 percent of USDA spending. For example, the panel's Department Operations, Oversight, and Nutrition Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction, has held no hearings on the issue this year.
But from a political standpoint, it's not hard to see why food stamps have not been a primary focus. Antihunger advocates have resisted anything that would increase scrutiny of the program, while farm-minded members have traditionally viewed food stamps as the price they had to pay to get urban members of Congress to vote for the farm bill.
BITING INTO FOOD STAMPS
Things have changed. The fight over food stamps has dominated the current farm bill. The debate has been going on since 2010, when Peterson was chairman and began holding hearings. Lucas, after he became chairman, held another round of hearings in Washington and around the country before writing the bill.
But this year, even though the panel had many new members, Lucas allowed only a subcommittee hearing on horticulture before holding a markup session. Even though Republicans insisted, over Democrats' objections, on increasing the cut in food stamps from $16.5 billion in the 2012 farm bill to roughly $20.5 billion in 2013, the measure still passed the committee on a bipartisan vote of 36-10.
The committee vote was not enough to persuade enough Republicans or Democrats to support the bill on the floor, however, leading to the defeat in June. Only 24 Democrats voted for the legislation. But even if the hoped-for 40 Democrats would have supported it, the farm bill still would have failed, because 62 Republicans voted against it.
Past leaders, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who was House speaker in 2008 when the last farm bill was passed, deferred to the committee most of the time. "What we do in the farm bill is really complicated stuff," Peterson said. "I would argue it is more complicated than what we do with the IRS. I think members understand that."
Two people who did not defer to the committee this year were House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who wanted a change in dairy policy, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who gave a floor speech urging members to vote for a food-stamp amendment that Democrats found odious. Boehner and Cantor won their floor votes and voted for final passage, but at the urging of Heritage Action and other conservative groups, many tea-party Republicans voted against final passage.
The response by Republican leadership to the defeat was unprecedented in recent decades: They split the farm bill in two. One bill, which passed in the House, contained agricultural programs. A separate measure contained the food-stamp program. The refusal by Cantor and tea-party Republicans to accept the committee bill's nutrition title and the leadership's unprecedented decision to split the farm bill in two fractured a decades-old marriage that traditionally helped get the legislation through Congress.
The cost of the agriculture-only bill is about $196 billion; the top-line number would have been roughly $1 trillion with food stamps included. Overall, the nutrition title would be over 70 percent of the farm bill's costs, and most of that is the food-stamp program.
But Republicans were not yet finished shaking things up. As part of the new strategy, Cantor prepared a nutrition bill with about $39 billion in food-stamp cuts over 10 years, roughly doubling the reduction in the previous bill.
The conservatives' argument is that the program is abused by recipients who don't meet eligibility requirements. These critics want to tighten loopholes that they say allow able-bodied adults to gain benefits. "Currently, working middle-class families struggling to make ends meet themselves are footing a bill for a program that has gone well beyond the safety net for children, seniors, the disabled, and families who desperately need the assistance," Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper recently told National Journal Daily.
Antihunger advocates have complained, but Cantor argued as late as last week that any reduction in benefits will not erode the safety net for the neediest Americans. "No law-abiding beneficiary who meets the income and asset test of the current program and is willing to comply with applicable work requirements will lose their benefits under the bill," he said.
The food-stamp bill is scheduled to hit the House floor this week. Pelosi said she expects Democrats to reject it, given that most opposed the previous bill that had only $20.5 billion in cuts. So Republicans will have to rally much of their conference to pass the bill.
Yet even if it does pass, there are still miles to go. A conference with the Senate, which passed its own comprehensive farm bill, is likely to be tumultuous because of the stark differences in the way the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House have treated food stamps. The Senate bill cuts only $4 billion from the program over 10 years.
Moreover, the clock is ticking. If a two-chamber deal is not reached by Sept. 30, farm-bill programs will revert back to the 1938 and 1949 laws. However, even if the two chambers don't reach an agreement, crop insurance and the food-stamp program will continue. Crop insurance has its own permanent law, and food stamps are an entitlement that can continue to operate even without reauthorization, provided the funding is approved through appropriations bills or a continuing resolution.
"Part of the problem" in persuading Congress to pass the bill, Peterson said, "is that crop insurance will continue whether there's a bill or not, and food stamps will continue."
Bipartisanship has not extended to the committee's other power center, either: regulating the futures industry and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Under Peterson's leadership, the panel played a role in the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act, which regulated the financial industry after the financial collapse in 2008. Under Republican leadership, the committee has passed bills that would reduce the new regulations, although these stand little chance of becoming law. This year, Republicans also held three subcommittee hearings on the reauthorization of the CFTC, which takes place every five years. Those hearings have been chaired by Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, whose General Farm Commodities and Risk Management Subcommittee is also in charge of commodity policy and crop insurance, making him by far the most powerful subcommittee chairman.
If Republicans retain the House, it may be Conaway who takes over the committee's gavel. The fact that a Texas Republican could chair the Agriculture Committee underlines how political changes in the country have resulted in dramatic changes in the committee's membership.
Rural Democrats from the Plains and the South dominated the panel through most of the 20th century and stayed on it for years. Those Democrats were usually conservative on social and fiscal matters, but they came from districts whose constituents tended to believe that wealth and power were elsewhere in the country and that the role of government — and the committee — was to improve their lives and get them a fairer shake.
In the 1970s, the rural South began to elect Republicans, but they too supported farm programs and food stamps. The GOP trend culminated in the 2010 elections, when the committee makeup changed to mostly rural Republicans, who are interested in commodities such as corn, cotton, rice, soybeans, and wheat; Democrats from California and New England, who are interested mostly in dairy, fruits, vegetables, and organic and local production; and urban representatives, who care mostly about nutrition programs, particularly food stamps.
The committee's membership is now skewed to the South, California, and New York, with less representation from the middle of the country than might be expected. Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming — all states with key agricultural constituencies — have no representation on the committee at all.
Moreover, the panel now has a handful of long-termers at the top, with a changing cast of characters down the line, prompting serious questions about the future and leadership.
Under House Republican rules, Lucas is scheduled to end his term as chairman when this Congress concludes in 2014. Lucas said last week he will run for reelection in 2014, and if the farm bill does not pass during this Congress, he will ask for a waiver from House rules so he can continue as chairman. If farm-bill opponents "use House Republican rules as a weapon, I will fight on every stage," he said.
Absent the waiver, Conaway is most likely to take over as chairman if the Republicans retain control of the House and follow regular order. Several other committee members have more seniority, but there are reasons they may not assume the leadership. They are former House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, and Mike Rogers, R-Ala. Conaway, like Peterson, is a certified public accountant. If Conaway becomes the highest-ranking Republican and Peterson stays as the highest-ranking Democrat, the committee would be run by two certified public accountants.
Still, even if Lucas does not keep the gavel, he will stay on the committee to make sure Congress does not repeat mistakes that have hurt farmers in the past.
As Lucas put it, "I am not here to benefit from the political chaos of the day."