I had several opening gambits for this blog based on the Senate’s passage of its 2012 Farm Bill this week. The first was, “I told you so.” The second was, “This is how the system is supposed to work.” I’m correct on both. I said the Senate would approve its Farm Bill by the end of June; I just didn’t know it would be such a relatively civilized process, keeping in mind the words “civilized” and “process” are rarely strung together these days when talking about Congress.
The process wasn’t exactly pretty, but then Farm Bills never are. The Republicans forced procedural votes which sucked time and achieved their goal of driving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D, NV) up the wall by delaying floor action for nearly a week. Then, despite pleas from Reid to keep amendments relevant to the underlying bill, members from both sides of the aisle filed nearly 350 proposed changes, most of which had nothing to do with the bill or the reality of omnibus federal farm policy.
This is where Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D, MI), first-time chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, earned her stripes in the Farm Bill wars. She and ranking committee member Sen. Pat Roberts (R, KS), former chair of the House Agriculture Committee and a veteran of Farm Bills as man and boy going back to the 1970s, were joined at the hip throughout the process, demonstrating the bipartisan solidarity that’s the hallmark of Farm Bills.
They negotiated the 350 amendments down to 73, tossing aside anything that didn’t have at least something to with USDA, ag policy, etc., while accepting minor tweaks to their bill that would still allow members to go home and say they’d “put their mark on the Farm Bill.” Then they prevailed upon Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to limit debate on each amendment to one minute on each side of the question, and held votes to 10 minutes each. This was remarkable for its efficiency, if not its cleverness in keeping the bill moving.
Gone were goofy amendments, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D, CA) bid to codify the United Egg Producers (UEP)-Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) group hug to set cage sizes for egg-laying chickens. Disappeared was Sen. Rand Paul’s bid to cut off foreign aid to Pakistan. Foreclosed on were random “cost-cutting” amendments that had more to do with headlines back home in an election year than making good law.
Trounced on the floor were a host of amendments, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I, VT) and Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D, CA) bid to let states mandate labels for genetically modified foods, feeds, ingredients, etc. Killed off was Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R, WI) bid to send the bill back to committee so it could be divided into separate farm program and nutrition bills. Also defeated were amendments related to food stamps, from Sen., Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D, NY) attempt to put back all the money cut by the committee from the food stamp program, to Sen. Jeff Session’s (D, AL) varied attempts to kill the program off altogether.
In the end, the Senate Farm Bill passed 64-35, and it is what Roberts called, “not the best possible bill, but the best bill possible.” It’s what old hands in this town say is the essence of politics, namely “the art of the possible.”
The most telling take-away from the Senate Farm Bill floor debate was the emotional wrap-up speeches that mark the end of any when passing major legislation. These are generally big wet kisses and hugs to staff who labored long and hard, and to colleagues who either strongly supported the legislation or kept their mouths shut and didn’t make bad situations worse.
But when the Senate Farm Bill surpassed the magic 60 votes needed for chamber approval, you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief, not to mention read the silent prayers of thanks that fell from the lips of the Farm Bill principals.
Stabenow, Roberts, Reid and McConnell all spoke glowingly – there were a couple of times I expected to see tears – about how the system worked, heaping praise on everyone within earshot, but drawing attention to what should be routine, but is now the exception: Bipartisan work to pass an important bill.
McConnell waxed nostalgic in his review of the process, saying the process of getting the 2012 Senate Farm Bill passed reminded him of how the Senate used to operate when Senators put aside party politics and sniping, and got down to the job of making good laws.