Farm Bill Could Benefit From Shutdown Crisis

Bryant Hofer harvests a field of corn on October 2, 2013 near Salem, South Dakota.
National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
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Jerry Hagstrom
Oct. 6, 2013, 7:23 a.m.

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.

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