On Thursday morning (September 20), House Speaker John Boehner confirmed that the House will not take up the “farm bill issue” until after November elections. Current law is set to expire at the end of this month.
The announcement is hardly a surprise with House leadership having repeatedly refused to allow floor time for the farm bill passed out of the House Agriculture Committee in early July. The full Senate passed its farm bill in June.
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Shortly after Boehner’s comments, Farm Press spoke with Roger Johnson, president of National Farmers Union (NFU) about the legislation’s status.
Despite House leadership claims to the contrary, Johnson insists there are enough votes to pass a new farm bill. “We just had a fly-in (to D.C. around) two weeks ago. We visited with every member in the House and Senate. Half of those were pre-scheduled with our fly-in participants. Overwhelmingly, they came back and reported that the (lawmakers they met with) wanted the farm bill to go ahead. It’s not that the votes aren’t there.”
In recent days, both Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, have also said the House could pass the farm bill if it was allowed to be voted on.
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During a Thursday afternoon press briefing, Stabenow wanted “to make it very clear we’re going to do everything possible to get this done in the lame duck session. Right now, 16 million people working in agriculture are left hanging by the House leadership. … I really am shocked that there hasn’t been action this month before the September 30 deadline.”
Stabenow believes that if Boehner “is comfortable moving forward and getting bipartisan votes, the votes are there. If he feels – as he has on many issues – that he has to have the majority, or all, of his own caucus, then there is a problem in moving this forward.
“We know the Republican caucus is split. Frankly, the Democratic caucus is split. But there are enough votes if you bring this up and allow a bipartisan vote to occur.”
Johnson, too, said the House could pass a new farm bill. “For crying out loud, this passed two-to-one in the Senate on a bipartisan basis. The House Agriculture Committee passed (its farm bill) three-to-one on a bipartisan basis.
“This isn’t about not having the votes. This, I believe, is about Speaker Boehner not wanting to have the Republican caucus divided and arguing about whether there should even be a farm bill before the election.”
Johnson said the House budget that passed “contained something like $160 billion in cuts to the farm bill. About $130 billion (of that) were out of nutrition. The House Agriculture Committee made about $16 billion in (nutrition program) cuts and the Senate cut just over $4 billion.
“So, there’s a huge difference between what the Ryan budget cut out of the farm bill and what the House Agriculture Committee cut out of the farm bill.”
Johnson also pointed to Tea Party Republicans who have been, “making the case that we don’t need a farm bill or that we need to divide the Nutrition Title away from the rest of the farm bill. Well, if you do that, you’ll kill them both.”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also met with NFU members during the recent NFU fly-in. Vilsack “makes the argument that this isn’t just about cuts to nutrition. This is about cuts some in the Republican party have in mind for all of agriculture: cutting the commodity programs, crop insurance programs – cutting everything by major amounts. And they know they can’t do that before the elections. So they’re waiting to do it after the elections.
“I think that’s what this is about. And that’s why all of us in agriculture have united to try and put as much political pressure as possible on Congress to take the vote before the election.”
On September 12, attempting to force a House vote on a new farm bill, Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley filed a discharge petition. To be successful, a majority of the House, 218 members, must sign on.
Johnson said the discharge petition “doesn’t have a chance. There are reports that Republican leadership is strong-arming their members telling them not to sign that discharge petition.”
Further, he charged, the filing of the discharge petition at such a late date is more proof of House leadership machinations.
“The House Agriculture Committee passed (its) farm bill in early July. That bill was bottled up and not released to Congress until a week ago. Under the rules, that was the first time that a discharge petition could be filed.
“So, even through folks had said, ‘we’ll do a discharge petition,’ they were prevented from doing so by the procedural tactics that the House leadership took to keep the bill bottled up in committee.”
Blame game, warnings on lame duck
What about recent comments by Boehner friends that blame House Leader Eric Cantor for the farm bill impasse?
“Boehner or Cantor -- does it matter?” Regardless, “We know that it’s House Republican leadership that is preventing the farm bill from coming to the floor. … There’s too much unfinished business – including the farm bill -- to be going home and campaigning.”
Farmers should be calling their congressmen and insisting that a House vote be taken before recess, said Johnson, as dealing with the farm bill during the coming lame duck session is too risky.
“Here’s the problem: there is no specificity about what will happen in the lame duck session. It used to be that there were no lame duck sessions. Those are done to deal with issues too political to be tackled before elections.
“In the coming lame duck session, there will be the huge issues of sequestration, tax rates, the fiscal cliff, postal reform. There will be many really big issues.”
Throwing the farm bill into that volatile mix presents two problems.
“One is if the House would just pass a farm bill before the election recess there could be a conference between (passage) and the lame duck session. They could come back during the lame duck and just have an up or down vote. While there is debate allowed on a conference report, there can be no amendments. But they aren’t doing that. Instead, (House leaders) are saying, ‘Put the whole thing into the lame duck.’”
That means the House will have to take up the farm bill, have a debate, make amendments, and ultimately pass it. Only then will it go over the Senate for conference.
“That conference committee will have to do its work during the lame duck session and then bring the final bill back (to both chambers). All of that has to be done in the lame duck. That’s a lot that has to happen. … Logistically it’s a big problem for the House to not have at least passed a farm bill version so we could just deal with reconciliation in the lame duck.”
The second big problem with the lame duck, according to Johnson, is the non-farm bill issues that must be dealt with will garner the majority of attention. His worry is that in that bigger debate the farm bill will become a pawn.
What often happens in a lame duck session is all the dicey issues not dealt with prior to election “are all rolled into one big package. They’ll trade this off for that in order to find some sort of grand bargain compromise to vote on. Who knows what could happen to the farm bill in that environment? We may come out just fine but it’s a very risky maneuver.”