By: David Rogers
July 12, 2012
Landmark farm legislation cleared the House Agriculture Committee early Thursday morning, capturing a strong bipartisan majority and putting pressure on the Republican leadership to relent and allow floor debate on the bill this summer — just as the Senate did last month.
Approved 35-11, the measure promises $35 billion in 10-year savings achieved through a major rewrite of commodity programs and cuts from food stamps. Direct cash subsidies to farmers would be ended in favor of new crop insurance products, but unlike the Senate, the House also preserves target prices as a safety net — important to Southern producers.
Seldom has a major bill moved so far in Congress with so little attention. But defying its doubters, it can no longer be ignored politically — with Iowa in play in the presidential election and the current farm program expiring Sept. 30.
“Only 13 legislative days remain before the August recess,” said Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the committee’s ranking Democrat and a close partner with Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). “If the House leadership fails to bring up this farm bill before the recess, they will jeopardize one of the economic bright spots of our nation’s fragile economy.
“Farmers need the certainty of a five-year farm bill. We cannot wait for the mess that will occur during the lame duck, and, frankly, I think an extension of the current farm policy potentially creates more problems than it solves.”
Wednesday’s markup wandered far afield: bedbug research, rival catfish inspections, a bid by private weather insurance companies for a share of premium subsidies, and an interstate commerce clause fight between Midwest egg producers and California Proposition 2 rules on living standards for hens were just some of the topics before ending near 1 a.m. Thursday.
But the core dynamic was the partnership between Peterson and Lucas — seen most dramatically in the case of food stamps and the nutrition title of the bill.
Five Democrats including Peterson joined Republicans on a pivotal 31-15 vote upholding $16.5 billion savings over 10 years from the program also known as the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). A second Democratic attempt to scale back the cuts to the same $4.5 billion level as approved in the Senate’s farm bill won one Republican defection: Rep. Christopher Gibson of New York. But it also failed 15-28, with Peterson again standing with Lucas.
Hours later it was the chairman’s turn to keep faith with his promise not to go far deeper on SNAP cuts.
On a 33-13 vote that split the committee Republicans down the middle, Lucas prevailed in defeating an amendment by Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) that would have doubled to reductions to $33 billion — as proposed in the GOP’s spring budget resolution.
Shortly after a second amendment, adding about $9 billion in SNAP reductions, was also defeated 27-17, with Lucas standing up to a majority of his Republicans. “We’ll fight on this skirmish line all the way back to Atlanta,” Lucas joked, and with him stood a core group of fellow Republicans.
“If we break the coalition we will have squandered our one good chance” to enact real food stamp savings, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Tex.) warned his conservative colleagues. But it was Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) who weighed in most emotionally, citing her own experience working in food banks at home.
“There is a great deal of need that is in America today, and it is growing every single day,” she said. “I ask each and every one of my colleagues to look in their heart and look in their soul and if you haven’t volunteered at a food bank, I suggest this weekend that you go to your local food bank and volunteer.”
Conservatives did not come away empty-handed.
An amendment by Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) would tighten procedures for verifying the legal status of immigrants receiving food stamps. New limits would be imposed on publicly funded radio spots, advertising the availability of benefits. And most controversial, Puerto Rico — which receives a block grant under SNAP — would be barred in the future from distributing any of that food aid in cash.
The commonwealth has argued that it needs this flexibility in rural, mountainous areas where electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards are not available. And Peterson said it high-handed for Republicans to now intercede when they themselves tout the flexibility of block grants.
But Rep. Steven King (R-Iowa) said the dangers of fraud are too great and the amendment had active support from grocery interests in Puerto Rico that backed the limitation.
“No human being is perfect, and if you hang the cash out in front of them, you know that it is going to be spent for things other than its intended purpose,” King said. “I don’t know how we can in good conscience … do anything but close down this loophole.”
The vote was 27-19 with Lucas breaking with Peterson in this one case – once the outcome was clear.
Coming much earlier in the day, the dairy and sugar votes were closely watched as a first test of strength for Lucas, given Washington’s role in managing supplies to try to protect against price swings that hurt domestic producers.
Nearly two-thirds of the panel’s Republican members are freshmen, many of whom were aligned with the tea party forces in the 2010 election. And Lucas found himself matched against his own ranking Republican, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, who was a thorn in the chairman’s side for much of the mark-up.
“It is a pure command and control regime,” Goodlatte said of the sugar program. But on both the sugar and dairy programs, Peterson was able to help Lucas overcome divisions on his side.
The dairy supply management program was upheld easily on a 29-17 vote and the sugar program — including restrictions on imports — by an even wider 36-10 margin.
Going forward, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have been only tepid in their support — despite the promise of significant savings. And precious time was already lost when Cantor convinced Lucas to delay committee action until after the July 4th recess.
But with the Senate having acted last month with bipartisan support, Lucas is gambling that pressure will build now with his bill out of committee—also with bipartisan support.
Set in the blue and gold décor of the old Agriculture Committee rooms, the proceedings had an air of folksy formality. Lucas, the one-time Oklahoma rancher — his wife now heads the family’s cow-calf operation at home — moved his herd along — always careful to include Democrats and even allowing himself to be overruled on voice votes.
“I know how risky it is to make a living as a farmer,” Lucas told the panel in opening the markup. “I still check the weather every day, usually multiple times a day because I know at a moment’s notice a dream crop can turn into a disaster.
“I’ve said this many times before, but it is worth saying again: a safety net is written with bad times in mind. These programs should not guarantee that the good times are the best, but rather that the bad times are manageable.”