If ever there was evidence the House is out of touch with the people who feed us, the seemingly unending saga of the 2013 Farm Bill is it. House leadership has so bolluxed the enactment of a modern, money-saving and more efficient set of farm programs, it may be Christmas or beyond before we could reasonably expect to see reauthorization of USDA’s authorities.
I’m at a loss to explain House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R, VA) use of the Farm Bill as a political ping pong ball. Following almost text-book committee and full Senate approval of that chamber’s Farm Bill, House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R, OK) and committee ranking member Rep. Collin Peterson (D, MN) did their jobs in 2012 when they guided the committee to approval of a solid, fiscally conservative Farm Bill. It wasn’t perfect, but it was what it should have been — the House position going into good faith negotiations with the Senate. Cantor, apparently with the tacit consent of House Speaker John Boehner (R, OH), refused to bring that bill to the floor because, it’s said, there wasn’t enough votes to pass it.
Flash forward to spring, 2013. Congress has extended the 2008 Farm Bill because it missed the statutory deadline to reauthorize farm programs, the Senate has once again gotten its bill through committee and the Senate floor — with pretty solid bipartisan support — and the House ag committee does it’s magic again, approving a comprehensive Farm Bill. Hopes ran it would move to the floor quickly, be approved and the conference committee tug-of-war with the Senate could begin. When finally the big day arrived, all was cranking along on the House floor quite nicely with Lucas and Peterson ably managing a complex piece of legislation — including a highly controversial nutrition title that carried $20 billion in food stamp program cuts over a decade — when Cantor, at the very end of a day-long floor fight and just before the final vote, greenlighted another amendment to the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — you call it food stamps — that added one more requirement to receive food stamps, and it proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. That one amendment was enough to bring down entire bill, the first time in anyone’s memory a chamber in Congress had killed a Farm Bill. And all because of a political move that can only be described as a step too far.
So, in his wisdom, Cantor decides — again with apparent agreement by Boehner — to take the nutrition title out of the Farm Bill, and the House passes the stripped down version of the ag bill. Immediately, Cantor takes dead aim at a stand-alone nutrition bill so that the conservative wing of his party who shot at SNAP during the Farm Bill debate has another political target to shoot at. Meanwhile, the Farm Bill today still sits waiting for Boehner to name conferees. Cantor has said that won’t happen until after the House vote on the nutrition bill, a bill designed to now cut $40 billion from the SNAP program over 10 years, shift eligibility authority in the states, and ensure recipients are not dodging income requirements or failing to look for work.
I have no problem with modernizing SNAP. It’s an expensive menu of nutrition programs that’s very likely in dire need of fixing. However, there is no good reason to delay naming Farm Bill conferees until after a floor vote on the nutrition bill. Cantor has set that vote for next week, obviously fairly sure at this point he has the votes to pass it. If he’s right, then Lucas has his marching orders in negotiating the nutrition title in the Senate’s bill. However, if the bill fails, then Cantor will have effectively hamstrung Lucas going into the House-Senate conference on the Farm Bill, and the ultimate fate of the final package is in doubt.
Why is cutting food stamps more important than reauthorizing farm programs, crop insurance, research, energy, trade, conservation and other important ag programs that support farming and ranching, maintain exports and keep citizens fed? Why is Boehner waiting to name conferees? If it’s to have a House-approved nutrition bill, complete with cuts 10 times as deep as the Senate bill, then he and his leadership team could simply give Lucas that number as his target.
Lucas this week said — and he shocked a good number of aggies — that he believes to get a final Farm Bill conference package, he and his fellow conferees are going to have to “think outside the box.” He didn’t give details on what that means, but everyone agrees it means there must be fresh and creative approaches to killing off direct program payments, a sensible approach to food stamps, protection of crop insurance as the last, best income safety net a farmer currently enjoys. He also went on to say that he’s going to run for reelection in 2014, and when reelected to the 114th Congress, he may need to ask leadership for a waiver on his term limited ag committee chairmanship. Why? Because he’s not 100% confident this deal is going to get done, and he may be dealing with yet another expiring extension of 2008 policies.
All of this could’ve been avoided, but hindsight is always 20/20. What Boehner, Cantor, et al need to do now is take a lesson from their mistakes and get of Lucas’ and Peterson’s way and let them do battle with the Senate.
© Copyright 2013 Brownfield, All rights Reserved. Written For: Brownfield