The Senate’s legislative model of what the next five years of federal ag policy should be – we call it the 2012 Farm Bill – is finally set for floor action beginning June 11. The long slog to approval should have begun the week before, but Republicans forced Democrats to leap procedural hurdles just because they could. At last count, more than 80 amendments have been filed – more no doubt will be filed over the weekend – and all this says that absent some kind of agreement to limit floor changes to the underlying bill, the trek will be lengthy, difficult and often ugly.
I’ve said before the old expression about never watching sausage or legislation being made was coined after a Farm Bill debate. A striking feature of any Farm Bill debate is the ever increasing number of members who haven’t got a clue what a Farm Bill is and what it isn’t. This leads to odd, rambling diatribes on the floor about parochial interests, including a few of my favorites from years past: Domestic ginseng production versus imported ginseng; the fate of honey bees without economic support featuring then Sen. Dan Quayle (R, IN) wandering around the Senate floor making buzzing noises – and, of course, the inevitable and tiresome harangues over “paying farmers not to farm.”
This round, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D, MI), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and her loyal opposition/ranking member Sen. Pat Roberts, represent a kind of yin/yang of Farm Bill political development and process. Stabenow, while a member of the ag panel for years, has not personally or at the staff level had to immerse herself in the ins and outs of countercyclical payments, ACRE programs, crop insurance premium subsidies and such arcana, while Roberts is the veteran author of more parts of more Farm Bills than most who draw breath in this town. Roberts holds the career distinction of having been a long-time member of both the House and Senate ag committees, and having chaired the House Agriculture Committee back in the days of “Freedom to Farm.” Please don’t ask, because I won’t go there.
But the two of them have demonstrated publicly not only the hallmark lack of partisanship that is ag policy, but a kind of irresistible force when it comes to shepherding their committee’s product to fruition. Stabenow is the voice and the sheer force of will in moving the bill; after all, it’s her first Farm Bill as chair of the committee and she needs the “win” to solidify her growing reputation as a farm policy player. Roberts is the well-respected gentleman farm policy expert with significant bipartisan connections to keep the train on the tracks, and who can overwhelm the most strident opponent with withering humor and a superior command of not only the facts, but the history of farm policy evolution.
The “disagreement among the states” over corn/soybean beneficiaries versus rice/peanut losers in the great Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) debate demonstrates the obvious respect the two senior Senator have for one another. While Stabenow has only a very small Michigan dog in the fight, Roberts represents a state that’s moved from traditional midwestern crop production to a serious combination of non-traditional Kansas crops, including the aforementioned southern staples. The fact the two have risen above political safety and home state interest to produce a bill they both honestly believe is at least the best first step toward farm program reinvention speaks volumes, and there are younger, greener members of both the House and Senate who should go to school on their example.
This is why 80-plus Farm Bill amendments, while a regrettably high number, don’t bother me so much. The Stabenow/Roberts pairing – let’s call them the Farm Bill Fred and Ginger – has worked well and there’s no reason to expect it won’t continue to be a match made in political heaven. It may take a while, but in the end, there will be a Senate-passed Farm Bill, and I’m wagering it will be done well in advance of the July 4 recess.
And trust me, once the Senate bill gets to conference with the House version – a bill crafted and shepherded by seriously experienced and senior members and committee staff, many of whom learned at Roberts’ knee – Ginger and the gang are going to need Fred in a major way.