On Thursday (August 1), House leadership landed a serious body blow to a new farm bill with an agreement to cut $40 billion in nutrition program spending. That is double the amount proposed in the farm bill passed out of the House Agriculture Committee in 2012.
The news comes after the House passed a farm bill (sans nutrition title) on a party-line vote earlier in July and then spent the rest of the month trying to cobble together nutrition legislation acceptable to enough Republicans.
The nutrition program funding proposal also comes just as Congress is set to go into recess for the month of August. Once the House is back in session in September, the nutrition legislation will be dealt with prior to conferencing a new farm bill.
The House nutrition plan was greeted, not surprisingly, with derision by Democrats. But the level of irritation expressed by Debbie Stabenow, Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman, was striking.
In a Thursday afternoon press call, Stabenow – who termed the House nutrition program proposals “appalling” -- placed the blame squarely on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “He doesn’t want a farm bill. He’s made that clear from the beginning with everything he’s done.”
With a deadline of September 30, when the current extension of the 2008 farm bill runs out, the situation is “a ticking time-bomb waiting to go off,” continued Stabenow. “It makes no sense. We ought to care about the 16 million people that work in rural America in agriculture and the food industry. Rural America is very important. The biggest jobs bill we will pass this year, or next, will be the farm bill.
“It makes no sense to see the political gamesmanship going on that is blocking us from getting this done.”
Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, was equally enraged. “There they go again. Apparently, the Republican leadership plans to bring up yet another political messaging bill to nowhere in an effort to try and placate the extreme right wing of their party. Clearly they have no interest in compromise or actual legislating.
“Adding an additional $20 billion in nutrition cuts, on top of the poison pill nutrition amendments that brought down the Agriculture Committee’s bipartisan farm bill in June, effectively kills any hopes of passing a five-year farm bill this year.
“I’ve repeatedly told these guys, we don’t have to do this. If the House would just name conferees, members can conference the House ‘farm only’ bill with the Senate’s farm bill during August and produce a compromise for both Houses to pass. Through today’s action, the House Majority has clearly shown they have no interest in getting a farm bill done. The American people should be outraged.”
Stabenow also warned that those expecting another extension of current law may be surprised at how difficult that will be. “There are those in the Senate – and the House, as well – that will strongly fight any extension that includes direct payments…
“I think the biggest thing is whether we can even get an extension passed. The extension passed last year (included things) we said were a waste of taxpayer dollars. Top of the list is direct payments.”
Fellow senators have approached Stabenow and are “now saying, ‘why in the world will we consider continuing subsidies that everyone believes are a waste of taxpayer money?’ … An (extension) will be very difficult discussion.”
Asked specifically about the $40 billion in nutrition program cuts, Stabenow again lit into the House leadership. “I don’t understand the thinking in the House leadership when they’re talking about putting something forward that I don’t know can pass the House. … It’s just another barrier to our getting a farm bill done. It’s wasted time and effort. It’s going nowhere, it won’t become law.”
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During the recess is it possible to have informal discussions with the House agriculture leaders on things other than nutrition?
“We’ll continue to have discussions. … But we can’t have a serious discussion until we have the full parameters (of the House nutrition bill) in front of us. We won’t be able to go as far as I’d like, and had expected to go, in pre-conferencing…
“I believe this is an effort to stop a farm bill from being passed. Everyone who cares about agriculture in the House needs to stand up and indicate that they’re tired of this.”
Raise a ruckus
Later, Stabenow expanded the range of people who should raise a ruckus over the farm bill. “I encourage everyone who cares about production agriculture, about preserving soil and water, about nutrition and healthy food efforts, about local food systems, or just wants to thank a farmer because they had good nutritious food to eat today … to get engaged. Speak out about how we need a farm bill. Spur efforts to get to us to a conference committee. Support (House Agriculture Committee leadership) efforts to get to a conference committee.
“We need people saying ‘enough is enough.’ Farmers and ranchers across our country don’t deserve to be treated this way. Families who need temporary food help because someone has lost their job don’t deserve to be treated this way.
“Frankly, enough is enough. The House needs to appoint conferees, we need to sit down and get this done.”
The pinched timeline to get a new farm bill passed was further highlighted by Stabenow, who pointed out the House is only in session for nine days in September. “We’d assumed that we’d immediately go to conference committee. … Now, we have to wait until the House decides what to do with their nutrition title. I don’t know if it’ll be the first or second week back before they get to that. But it’s my understanding conferees won’t be appointed until they go through that process.
“September 30 is looming. I’m going to continue to do everything humanly possible to move this forward. That’s what we’ve been doing in the Senate.
“At this point, the path forward is less clear.”
Following the House action, Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union president, said, “Rather than try to reach a workable figure in reducing funding for important social safety net programs, the House Republican leadership has taken a hard-line political stance by proposing a $40 billion cut to the nutrition title of the farm bill.
“This is not progress. Instead of offering a strategy that would cut even deeper into efforts to help those in need, House leadership should appoint conferees to start the process of reaching a compromise with the Senate’s farm programs in August.
“The farm bill extension expires on Sept. 30, and any delay beyond that date will add unnecessary uncertainty to the livelihoods of America’s farmers, ranchers, rural communities and the more than 16 million people who are employed in agriculture. Time is limited and few legislative days will be available in September. The House Majority should stop making the farm bill even more difficult and start the conference process by naming conferees immediately.”