The House Ag Committee’s draft 2012 Farm Bill released this week sets the stage for an efficient panel markup July 11, but one heck of an ugly floor fight some time thereafter. The good news is the committee’s chair, Rep. Frank Lucas (R, OK) and ranking member, Rep. Collin Peterson (D, MN) are on the same page; the bad news is most of their respective parties are not.
Time was, or so I’m told, the chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees would gather their ranking members and go into a small room. When they emerged, they’d hand off the new Farm Bill to folks who cared, pretty much signed, sealed and delivered. Then, in the 1980s, the process became more communal, more inclusive and a lot more complicated.
Every group has a notion of how its particular slice of the federal pie should be doled out. This is normal, and to the extent there’s a group hug over a broad program approach to make everyone happy, the deed would be done with at most arguments over how expensive a program would be authorized. Most of the truly heavy lifting came from those unrelated or vaguely related amendments that needed to be included, excluded, defended or killed off.
Those days are so over. We now find ourselves in a tug-of-war over how to slash federal spending on agriculture and its related programs. The Senate’s first bet in this game was its $23.6 billion in spending cuts. The House just doubled down with over $35 billion in spending reductions over the next 10 years, with about $12 billion of that coming in the next five years, the life of the new Farm Bill.
The Senate leaves federal crop insurance alone; the House kicks up crop insurance spending by over $9.5 billion, offsetting the increase by cutting more deeply into the commodity program side of the ledger. The Senate creates a single, one-size-fits-all replacement for commodity programs through its Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) shallow loss program; the House takes ARC, sees that program, and raises it by providing two options, both coupled to crop insurance, and sweetens the bet by reinstating target prices, now referred to as “reference prices.”
The 800-lb. gorillas in the room are the entitlement programs – all mandatory spending – included in the Farm Bill. By now, most folks understand about 80% of the nearly $1-trillion, 10-year cost of the Farm Bill is food stamps, women, infant, children nutrition programs, school lunch, and similar programs. The bullseye of slash-and-burn spending zeal is squarely on the food stamp program, a heretofore sacred cow, where if anything, folks vied to see how much they could increase the program, not how much they could reduce it.
The House bill “balances” cuts in farm program spending with nearly equal cuts in food stamps, meaning the net cuts to commodity programs at about $14.5 billion sit opposite more than a $16-billion whack out of food stamps. The Senate bill by comparison cuts food stamps by about $4.5 billion, mainly through what Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D, MI) describes as reductions in waste, fraud and abuse of the program. The House bill is more daring; it slashes the program through changes in eligibility. This is where it gets ugly.
While various true ag groups will be battling for whatever victories are necessary post-markup, and while the Environmental Working Group (EWG) will be leading the charge against federal crop insurance premium subsidies, others will be trying to arbitrarily cut other programs in hopes of scoring election points back home for “going big and going bold” in their budget cuts. But be assured: The House Democrats as a bloc will focus almost exclusively on reversing cuts in food stamps, accusing the GOP in an election year of being the cruelest of cruel, the new definition of “fat cats,” and the reincarnation of Scrooge.
When the dust settles, we’ll likely get a bill along a party line vote. Then we move on to the House-Senate conference committee where the game starts with a fresh deck.