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House passes controversial, stripped-down farm bill

House passes farm bill 216-208. Nutrition Title removed from bill, will be taken up by the House Agriculture Committee in coming days. Bill would change permanent law requirements.  

The House has passed a farm bill stripped of the Nutrition Title on a 216 to 208 vote. Passage came Thursday (July 11) afternoon following a quick wind-up of the new bill and a late Wednesday night meeting of the Rules Committee to set the vote process in motion.

Angry Democrats took to the floor to denounce the 608-page bill that they were presented with only hours earlier. If it somehow reaches the White House – seemingly impossible with a conference of the Democrat-controlled Senate waiting -- President Obama will veto it.

More here.

Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, vowed to quickly tackle the Nutrition Title separately in another bill.

Just prior to the vote, Lucas spoke on why such an approach was necessary. After many consultations with fellow lawmakers, “I came to the realization I had to think outside the box.”

Besides leaving the Nutrition Title for later, another change has to do with permanent law. Lucas defended replacing 1938 and 1949 permanent law with “whatever the ultimate product this farm bill process this year is. … I know many of you say ‘(older permanent law) is the hammer with which we force things to happen.’ Well, the hammer hasn’t worked very well in the last two years, has it? It’s time to move past that old paradigm, craft good agricultural policy for rural America and the consumer out there, and make it the permanent law.”

As for the Nutrition Title, Lucas claimed it became “quite clear that was the most complicated part of the process.” While admitting he is unable to guarantee what will eventually come out of the Agriculture Committee on nutrition, he pledged, “I assure you it will be a fair and open process. I assure you, you’ll be able to state your will on this floor. And hopefully, if 218 of us can agree on a Nutrition Title, two (House) bills can be conferenced with the Senate.”

Earlier in the debate, substantial partisan fault lines cracked open even wider.

Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, chairman of the House Rules Committee, tried to spread the blame for the failed farm bill vote in June.  “In the vote that was held for the farm bill 171 Republicans voted for it and 62 Republicans voted against it. Twenty-four Democrats voted for it and 172 voted against it.

“This meant the farm bill didn’t pass and as a result of the significance of the underlying legislation of the farm bill – that does include provisions related to (food stamps) -- the Republican leadership … felt it was very important for this body, as quickly as we returned, to offer a bill that could be passed. … Remember, only 24 Democrats (voted for) the previous bill. We’re attempting to separate, bifurcate, offer a rule and underlying legislation which will hopefully pass, which would go to conference. The Senate, because they’ve passed their own farm bill, has included in provisions where they discuss SNAP. … That will be included in their bill on a conference measure. … (Nutrition funding will be) fully debatable under the conference.

“The Senate conferees could stick to their position and hold to cut $4 billion. (The House) wouldn’t have a position to cut a penny.

“I believe this is an honest attempt … to get to conference. The tactics against that are simply to keep us from going to conference.”

Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, minority whip, returned to two grievances that Democrats continually drove home regarding the failed farm bill in June: poison pill amendments and the inability of House leadership to keep its own caucus in line. “You lost 62 votes on your side of the aisle notwithstanding the fact that you adopted three amendments that (Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee) advised you would undercut his ability and the Democrats’ ability to support the bill…

“That was to the knowledge of (Rep. Lucas). I know Mr. Lucas knew those were undermining.”

While Hoyer acknowledged Sessions’ sincere desire to reach conference with some sort of farm bill, “there was little or no discussion about how we could move forward and create a greater bipartisan coalition. … The constructive way this could have passed would be if we reached a bipartisan compromise. Unfortunately, as is too frequently the case, we’ve gone to an ultra-partisan resolution to try and pass this bill and presumably a number of 62 (Republicans who voted against the bill three weeks ago). You’ll need a substantial number of the 62 because, as you can tell, (Democrats) don’t believe this is a process we can support.”

Sessions said Republicans “rightly or wrongly” were now “attempting to be forthright and honest about what’s in the bill and what our intents are. … What we’ve done is excluded some extraneous pieces that would cause the bill to fail.”

If Sessions was trying to keep the debate on a low boil, his use of the word “extraneous” was a mistake. Democrats seized on it and repeatedly made the point that nutrition is not a minor consideration if one wants to stay alive.

Changes, reactions

Also, despite proponents advocating that the bifurcated farm bill is the same as the one voted down in June, Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern argued that the new bill was “dramatically” different. The bill “has several major changes that we know about. I say ‘know about’ because we really don’t know what’s in this bill and we don’t know how some of the changes will affect long-term farm policy.

“Something new in the bill is the repeal of the 1949 permanent law. What does that mean? What impact will that language have on future farm policy? Who knows? There hasn’t been a single hearing on this language nor a mark-up – nothing, nothing.

“This bill also eliminates the entire Nutrition Title, which includes more than just food stamps. It includes monies for food banks, emergency food assistance and food for senior citizens. The whole title is gone.”

McGovern stuck the knife in deeper. “My question is: what were the right-wingers in the Republican conference promised in order to change their votes from no to yes? What is the backroom deal they’ve negotiated with the Republican leadership? How deep a cut to the SNAP program were they promised?”

While McGovern’s questions were never answered, Sessions provided a timeline on the quick move to bring the new bill to the floor. “Last night (July 10), Lucas approached the (Rules Committee) and said he would like for us to consider this bill (only) on farm portions. He indicated he would follow up – had every intent to follow up – with a companion part, which would be the SNAP portion.”

Not surprisingly, Democrats weren’t sold. Peterson – whose opposition to the farm bill tactic was backed by a 530-member coalition of agriculture interests (see here) -- warned that splitting the bill “jeopardizes the chances of it ever becoming law. And repealing permanent law all but ensures that we will never write a farm bill again. … If you want to ensure Congress never considers another farm bill and the farm programs as written in this bill remain forever, then vote for this bill.

“In every farm bill, there are things some people like and things some people don't. The beauty of the 1938 and 1949 permanent laws is that it forces both groups to work together on a new farm bill, because no one really wants to go back to the old commodity programs.”

Peterson continued, “I don’t see a clear path forward from here. There has been no assurance from the Republican leadership that passing this bill will allow us to begin to conference with the Senate in a timely manner. In fact, the Republican leadership has told agricultural groups to support this bill as the way to go to conference, while also telling Republican members, fearful of the wrath of conservative groups' opposition, that there will be no conference, at least not without first getting concessions from the Senate; concessions the Senate will never agree to.”

An annoyed chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee awaits the House farm bill in conference. Shortly after the “extremely flawed” bill’s passage, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow derided the legislation as “an insult to rural America, which is why it’s strongly opposed by more than 500 farm, food and conservation groups.”

Farm groups were mostly luke-warm to the House farm bill.

“Today’s strictly partisan vote to pass the farm bill apart from the nutrition title undermines the long-time coalition of support for a unified, comprehensive farm bill which has historically been written on a bipartisan basis,” said Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union president.“NFU will continue to do all it can to get a reasonable bill through the conference process. Any final legislation must continue existing permanent law provisions and include meaningful safety net protections for both family farmers facing difficult times and the food insecure.”

The American Soybean Association “is relieved that we will finally see a conference on the farm bill,” said Danny Murphy, ASA president and soybean farmer from Canton, Miss. “However today's approval by the House on a partial bill will mean nothing if we can't get a bill back from conference that both chambers will pass. In that sense, there is still much work to be done.

“ASA is opposed to the replacement of permanent law by whatever legislation may result from this process. If only Title 1 (the Commodity Title) of a new farm bill is made permanent, other titles -- including conservation, research, energy and trade -- would risk not being reauthorized when the bill expires after five years, since Title 1 would remain in place. Also, we are very concerned that Title 1 of a new bill could include provisions that would distort plantings and production in years of low prices, and that it would be extremely difficult to change these provisions if the legislation were made permanent.”

Randy Veach, president of Arkansas Farm Bureau, said, “We are disappointed in House leadership for choosing to split the bill and repealing the permanent law status of the farm bill, which creates the possibility that we will never write a farm bill again.

“The decision by House leadership to pursue that path put members of the Arkansas delegation in a very difficult situation.

“We still have a long way to go to get to passage of a five-year farm bill. The challenge will be in conferencing the vastly different proposals from the Senate and the House.

A statement from the Agricultural Council of Arkansas said the organization “was glad to see the House of Representatives make progress on the farm bill. While we were disappointed that the House was unable to pass the Committee-passed farm bill (H.R. 1947), we are pleased that the House was able to advance the non-nutrition titles of that farm bill, which will allow for the House and Senate to move to conference with the Senate. We hope the House and Senate will work together to provide a conference report that will contribute to deficit reduction, offer sufficient safety nets for farmers and low income Americans, and provide the certainty of a five-year law.”

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