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Farm Bill Drama

Saturday, September 1, 2012
filed under: Marketing/Risk Management

By Dale Thorenson

When the U.S. Senate passed its version of the 2012 farm bill on June 21 by a strong 64-35 vote, all eyes turned to the House. In response, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) announced his intentions to mark up his farm bill the following week, right before the 4th of July break, to enable staff time to prepare the bill for floor action in July.

But within a few hours of Lucas’ remarks, the Republican House leadership

— Speaker Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Cantor (R-VA) — released a floor schedule for the next week that included consideration of the FY2013 Agriculture Appropriations Bill. This effectively knocked the June farm bill mark¬up off the calendar because Ag Committee members would have to be available to fight off scurrilous amendments during appropriations debate. As a result, Lucas postponed the farm bill mark-up to July 11.

The annual ag spending bill has yet to be considered on the House floor.

Chairman Lucas and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D¬MN) did hold their mark-up on July 11. In a marathon session finishing in the early morning hours the following day, they passed the bill with a strong bipartisan vote of 35-11. The pair then promptly began lobbying the House Republican leadership for floor time, as there were only three weeks left before the House would adjourn for the August recess and not return until September 10.

About that time, it became apparent that Mother Nature had also decided to play a role in this Capitol Hill drama. She began pushing daily temperature readings into the triple digits all across the Heartland, setting some all-time record highs to emphasize the point. As a result, the growing drought reached a severity and scope that had not been seen in 50 years.

Cue the national news media, always eager to push a new tragedy, and soon tales of the “Dirty Thirties” were being told by old-timers during evening newscasts. Each week, the red “severe drought” zone on the U.S. Drought Monitor Map mushroomed in size. Farm state congressmen began demanding that the Ag Committee-passed farm bill be brought to the House floor so that its livestock disaster provisions could be enacted.

However, an open debate on the farm bill would mean other issues would also be brought up, coupled with tough votes prior to an election. The most contentious and politically dangerous of these “other issues” would be the level of cuts inflicted upon the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka “food stamps”). The Senate farm bill contained $4 billion in cuts to SNAP over 10 years; the House Committee farm bill had $14 billion; and amendments to cut up to $35 billion would likely be offered during a debate on the House floor.

But as the drought worsened with each passing day, the House Republican leadership concluded the political price for not voting on an ag disaster package prior to a five-week recess was just too steep. However, rather than bringing the Ag Committee-passed 2012 farm bill (which included disaster aid already paid for) to the floor, they announced on July 25 that a one-year extension of the 2008 farm bill that included a scaled-back version of disaster aid would be cobbled together, with consideration scheduled right before leaving for the August recess.

The details of the extension were released on Friday, July 27: $621 million in disaster assistance would be offset with $759 million in conservation cuts over the next 10 years, with $261 million in Direct Payment cuts over nine years. Direct Payments would be paid in full next year, and SNAP benefits would not be cut, either.

To appease conservatives upset about Direct Payments and SNAP escaping the knife, a host of mandatory spending authorizations would be terminated, includ¬ing renewable energy, rural economic development, organic agriculture, local farmer markets, beginning and minority farmer programs. Assurances were also given that this extension could not be used as a vehicle to conference with the five-year bill the Senate passed in June.

With all that baggage — full Direct Payments and SNAP benefits for 2013, conservation cuts, program termina-tions, no farm bill conference, and close to $400 million more in cuts than needed — by Tuesday afternoon, July 31, the extension suffocated and died under its own weight due to opposition from just about every constituency involved.

(One notable “Dear Colleague” letter from Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) asked, “What do Direct Payments and Disco Have in Common?” The answer being, “They Both Should Be Allowed to Fade into the Past! Vote ‘No’ on Farm Bill Extension & Continued Direct Payments.”)

Amazingly, the House Republican Leadership had managed to unite almost everyone in opposition to their plan.

Plan B — a stand¬alone disaster bill — was revealed on Tuesday evening that would be brought up for a vote under sus¬pension of the rules – meaning no amend¬ments and a two-thirds majority would be required for passage – with the vote taking place on Thursday, August 2. The cost for the disaster assistance was $383 million with offsets of $639 million from the Conservation Security Program and Environ¬mental Quality Incentives Program. The remaining $256 million would go toward deficit reduction.

Although not in opposition, major farm groups panned the stand-alone disaster bill on Wednesday afternoon, August 1, lecturing that a much better option would be for the House to consider the Ag Committee-passed farm bill because the assistance was already paid for and was more comprehensive in scope.

By Wednesday evening, the House Republican leadership team determined they did not have the two-thirds majority to pass the bill under a suspension of the rules, and had to revert to Plan C: a closed rule for the same legislation. This meant that just a simple majority would be required to pass both the rule (a resolution deeming it was in order to consider the legislation) and the disaster assistance legislation.

On Thursday morning, August 2, no one appeared to be very enthused about the situation. Indeed, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) was quoted in Congressional Quarterly: “It's hard to get excited about a disaster measure that's more political than relief.” But the rule did pass around noon by a 236-182 vote; and at 5 p.m. the stand¬alone disaster bill passed by a vote of 223-197. Voting yes were 188 Republicans and 35 Democrats; 46 Republicans and 151 Democrats voted no.

The House then adjourned, and members flocked to the airport to head home until September 10, which is just 20 days prior to the September 30 expiration date of the 2008 farm bill.

Dale Thorenson is on the staff of Gordley & Associates, which provides representation for the National Sunflower Association in Washington, D.C. Prior to coming to Washington as aide to then-Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Thorenson managed his family's farm in Bottineau County, N.D. His practice areas include farm policy, budget and appropriations.
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