Farm Bill Update: “An extraordinary political spectacle”
By Patty Lovera
That was how Politico’s David Rogers described today’s Farm Bill action in the House. It’s a pretty accurate description, and way more polite than what many farm bill-watchers (including me) had to say about what went on today when they rushed a farm bill to the floor.
To recap: On June 20th, the House of Representatives voted on the Farm Bill and it failed, 195-234. Political junkies, as well as those who work on food policy, still haven’t gotten over it, since farm bills rarely (if ever) get voted down.
Republican House leadership brought up an even more contentious idea in today’s attempt to revisit the farm bill. The strategy of the Republican leadership to break the impasse was to split the farm bill into two parts – and to leave the nutrition programs like SNAP (also known as food stamps) out of the bill.
This is yet another unprecedented move, since the long-standing political formula to pass a farm bill is by combining agriculture and nutrition programs in the same bill to build broad-based support in both rural and urban parts of the country. So, once again in this farm bill cycle, we are looking at a scenario that was never supposed to happen.
Food & Water Watch, and almost every other group working on the farm bill, opposes splitting up the bill this way, for a lot of reasons. Most importantly, it makes SNAP incredibly vulnerable to draconian cuts that have become a priority of many conservative members of Congress. Dealing with SNAP as a stand alone bill – or not passing a separate nutrition bill at all – creates opportunities for drastically cutting funding for the program or making other radical changes like turning it into a block grant program.
And in addition to the attack on the nutrition safety net, splitting the bill also makes it harder to actually finish the farm bill process. Any farm bill the House passes still must be combined with the Senate farm bill (in a process known as a conference committee). The Senate will not accept a farm bill that omits vital nutrition programs. Even if this change somehow got through the Senate, the President has said he will veto the bill the House passed today.
If that wasn’t a big enough issue, the bill the House voted on today had even more radical changes. For decades, farm bills have been written so that if they expire, we revert to “permanent law” from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Up until this year, the threat of reverting to these old laws motivated the Congress to actually finish the farm bill. The bill the House voted on today took out the permanent law provisions, so if a future farm bill expires, we would revert to the farm policy being debated today.
Of course even the threat of “permanent law” was not enough to get the do-nothing Congresses of 2012 and 2013 to actually pass a farm bill. Go just a little further back on the farm bill timeline of dysfunction, and you’ll see that our current farm policy was created on New Years Day, 2013, when the Congress included a quickie farm bill extension in the holiday legislation to avoid the supposed fiscal cliff. That maneuver left out important programs for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, organic and sustainable agriculture, disaster assistance for farmers and other key programs. But it did include controversial commodity programs like support for the sugar program and direct payments to commodity crop producers.
But whether you hate the laws from the 30s and 40s more than the current farm bill or not, removing the threat of permanent law removes the only incentive for a gridlocked Congress to actually pass a new farm bill. What all this boils down to is an end of the farm bill process as we have known it for decades.
Despite Democrats deploying a host of parliamentary maneuvers to extend the debate and try to hold off the vote, this afternoon the House voted to pass this controversial farm bill, 216-208.
So what now?
Now the Senate is back in play, as the farm bill goes to conference committee. No word yet on when that process will start, but stay tuned for updates and action alerts.