July 23, 2012
Congress delays farm bill as drought spreads
Published in Politico
To understand how far this Congress will go to kick the proverbial can down the road, consider the farm bill — yes, the farm bill.
In the midst of a severe drought, the House Republican leaders are proposing to walk away from farm states and decades of precedent by not calling up the new five-year plan before the current law expires Sept. 30.
Whatever its flaws, the bill promises $35 billion in 10-year savings from exactly the type of mandatory spending that Congress promised to tackle in last summer’s debt accord. But rather than disrupt its political messaging, the GOP would put it all at risk by delaying action until after the November elections.
There’s little institutional memory left in the Capitol — or perspective on the accumulation of cans rolling down the road these days. But the farm bill delay is new ground for any Congress.
Never before in modern times has a farm bill reported from the House Agriculture Committee been so blocked. POLITICO looked back at 50 years of farm bills and found nothing like this. There have been long debates, often torturous negotiations with the Senate and a famous meltdown in 1995 when the House Agriculture Committee couldn’t produce a bill. But no House farm bill, once out of committee, has been kept off the floor while its deadline passes.
If pushed into November’s lame-duck session, farmers will join Medicare physicians whose pay will be running out, idled workers worried about jobless benefits, and very likely, millions of families faced with expiring tax breaks.
For all the backslapping over the recent transportation bill, that measure expires in just 15 months. The Democratic Senate no longer even tries to do 12-month appropriations bills. Already in mid-July — when the floor used to be humming — the “smart money” is plotting a stop-gap continuing resolution to get to November or beyond.
Such a CR was once treated as a backstop by the Appropriations committees. Now the practice is so prevalent in all areas of government that the letters might stand for “Congress Retreats.”
“It’s to the point where you almost think you should vote against extensions because they are extensions,” Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) told POLITICO. “If you were looking at the United States from outside, you look and you say, ‘What are these people? Fools?’”
Elections do matter, and there’s some logic to letting the voters reshuffle the deck before tackling tough issues. But that’s not what’s happening here.
The presidential campaigns are already being criticized for lacking all substance. But whoever wins, neither President Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney has shown any appetite for this debate — or even knowledge of farm issues.
The Senate has already approved its farm bill; even if Republicans were to win control in November, the GOP’s majority will be so narrow that Democrats will be able to block wholesale changes. In the House, the only certainty about a lame duck is there will be even more unhappy people hanging around.
No, the real reason for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to delay the farm bill is not because there will be better answers after the election. It’s because he doesn’t like the answers he sees before.
The farm bill came out of the House Agriculture Committee on a strong bipartisan 35-11 vote July 12. Nearly a year after the August debt accords — and eight months after the November collapse of the deficit supercommittee — it is the closest this Congress has come to enacting real deficit reduction from mandatory spending.
But it’s not perfect, and Boehner’s Republicans are split regionally and ideologically, with the right demanding still greater savings and a more free-market approach to agriculture policy.
Given Democratic concerns over the depth of the food stamp cuts already made, Boehner says there are not 218 votes for passage. Rather than wrestle with this problem, it’s easier to run out the clock with symbolic anti-red tape, anti-tax votes on which the GOP is more united.
Senate Democrats have kicked their share of cans as well. First no spring budget resolution. Then no summer appropriations debate. All under the watch of a majority leader — Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — who served for years on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Yet there’s something bigger about the farm bill.
Perhaps because it is a five-year event and so fundamental to one bright spot in the economy. Or maybe it’s the pounding drought across the country that gives pause. Farmers live by nature’s calendar, not continuing resolutions. And by failing to act, Congress can seem even more detached from the real lives of everyday people.
Changes in the Washington press foster this detachment. Major newspapers are more prone to editorials than real reporting on the debate. Regional papers, once the backbone of farm coverage, have closed their bureaus. In the new Capitol trend, some of the most experienced agriculture reporters report to clients — not the public.
The biggest irony may be Boehner himself. The speaker, after all, spent his early years on the Agriculture Committee and prides himself on being a “regular order” and pro-chairman leader. He chastises Obama regularly for doing precisely this: kicking the can down the road.
As if to remind him, Rep. Rick Berg (R-N.D.), a Boehner favorite now running for the Senate, took to the floor Thursday just minutes after the speaker had again ducked farm bill questions at his weekly news conference.
“Now is the time for the House to act,” Berg told his colleagues. “The time for the farm bill is now.”
The biggest Republican divisions are also where the greatest savings lie: the commodity and nutrition titles.
Both the House and Senate put an end to direct cash payments to farmers, a long-demanded reform saving about $5 billion a year. The dispute is over how much of that money is reinvested in new subsidies — and where.
The Senate bet heavily on a new shallow-loss revenue-protection program geared to Midwest corn and soybean producers. The House whittles this down to make room for more of a traditional countercyclical program that protects against deep losses but is keyed to government-set target prices — a taboo for free-market types.
Southern rice, peanut and wheat producers stand to do far better under the House approach, but the two bills appear to lunge in opposite regional directions. Corn and soybean growers can almost lock in profits in the early years of the Senate plan. At the same time, the House cotton package costs nearly 20 percent more than what was already viewed as a rich Senate deal. And a $14 per hundredweight target price for rice is higher than what many other crops got, when measured against government data for production costs.
The 13 Southern states are the backbone of the House GOP’s majority, contributing 102 votes or more than 40 percent of the conference. This is also where the lines are clearest, not just for crops but also food-stamp savings.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, had hoped to thread this needle by offering a new national eligibility standard for the nutrition program somewhat to the right of Texas’s food stamp rules. But for the majority of Southern states, it meant a modest increase from 130 percent to 140 percent of poverty as the high-end income cap — and so it ran aground in the committee.
Peterson, refusing to be discouraged, has plunged back into the fray, trying to find some compromise on food stamps and still hoping that Boehner will relent on moving the farm bill this summer.
“Collin is a CPA by training. He’s a numbers guy. He’s very focused as a Blue Dog about the budgetary consequences of our actions,” Lucas told POLITICO. “I think he’s basically on the right track as he’s described it to me. The question really comes down to: will we wind up with floor time?”
The morning after his late night markup, Lucas sought out Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) face to face. “They thanked me, smiled at me and left it at that,” Lucas said.
He himself is worried — like Republicans in the Senate — that simply passing a short-term extension of the current farm law will not be an easy matter in September. Having spent the better part of a year saying direct payments must end, will Congress want to extend them?
“I’m trying to maintain a good solid working relationship with my leadership,” Lucas smiles. “I’m trying to be a positive advocate for why I believe our bipartisan bill deserves floor time.”
“I’ve alerted staff to be ready to go on a moment’s notice, and I will also tell you there are external events that could impact the situation. If this drought continues in the West and Midwest, it could drive members to want to see some action.”