Those salivating over a 2012 Farm Bill this week proved they’re willing to play hard ball to get their five-year reinvention of federal farm programs. Some cynics contend the game they’re actually playing is chicken, and they’re betting/hoping the other side blinks.
Late last week, House GOP leadership, none too enamored of bringing the House Agriculture Committee-approved ag bill to the floor – not enough votes, too much floor time, not a high enough priority – set the stage for “quick” September action. The drought moved to center political stage, so House Speaker John Boehner (R, OH) said he’d take a disaster package to the floor, one including a one-year extension of the current Farm Bill. This gambled on the Senate going along on the disaster package. The stage would then be set for House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R, OK) to be protected if no final Farm Bill deal was reached, but also allowing him to “pre-conference” his committee bill with that approved by the full Senate – staff are already talking – and get his troops rallied and votes counted so the House panel bill would come to the floor with a better than 50-50 chance of passing.
Boehner’s master plan fell apart. By Monday this week, just about every ag group, banking organization, conservation association and environmental gang on the planet came out opposing a one-year extension. Lucas’ ag panel ranking minority member Rep. Collin Peterson (D, MN), a stalwart ally during committee work, made it clear he wouldn’t go for kicking the Farm Bill down the road, and he wants a real chance to negotiate a final Farm Bill with the Senate. House member opposition grew exponentially on both sides of the aisle. Then Senate leadership made it clear – through Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D, MI) – it would not entertain even the notion of a one-year extension. Boehner relented, dumped the one-year extension and went with a nominal disaster assistance bill that even aggies call “unnecessary.” It passed by a relatively and surprisingly narrow margin in the House given the breadth of the drought’s impact, with just about every supporting speech on the floor starting with the words, “I’d rather be voting on a five-year Farm Bill…”
Congress recessed late yesterday. We will not see their shining faces in Washington, DC until around September 10. Just before the mass rush to airports, Stabenow, Lucas, Peterson and Sen. Pat Roberts, Senate ag panel ranking member, met to talk about next steps. All have been closed mouth about the outcome of that meeting, but those watching and wishing think the foursome struck a deal on strategy, if not substance.
Stabenow is saying she wants a five-year Farm Bill or a ““bipartisan stand-alone, comprehensive disaster assistance program.” (That second description alone should be enough to inspire Lucas and Peterson.) Everyone’s preference is a five-year Farm Bill. While their bosses are out on the campaign hustings or enjoying a month off because they’re not up for reelection – that would be Roberts – staff for the House and Senate Agriculture Committees will be in small rooms across Capitol Hill identifying the 75-80% of the Senate-passed bill and the House committee-approved bill in total agreement. They’ll also be duking it out, trying to reconcile the two major differences: The Senate’s commodity title is predicated on a shallow loss program and the South hates it; the House commodity title is built on a rework of target prices/countercyclical payments, and somehow, the two must be reconciled or there’s no bill. My money says this hurdle will be overcome.
The bigger political animal to slay is how deeply do they slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – you know this as food stamps – and how do they sell it to those who will inevitably believe whatever the ag panels come up with is either way too much or way too little. However, even Peterson believes SNAP administrative process and program changes can save nearly $8 billion without dumping folks who need to be there out of the program, so there’s perhaps light at the end of this tunnel as well.
So, the gang of four has about five weeks to get this package ready for prime time. Given there’s only about a week and a half of actual congressional work days in September, the deadline for blinking in this game is going to come around faster than most think.