Lobbyist: farm bill failure 'undercuts our effectiveness'

WASHINGTON -- In a major embarrassment for the agriculture community, the House of Representatives on June 20 failed to pass a farm bill after members voted to keep the current sugar program, but rejected a key element in the new dairy program wr...

WASHINGTON -- In a major embarrassment for the agriculture community, the House of Representatives on June 20 failed to pass a farm bill after members voted to keep the current sugar program, but rejected a key element in the new dairy program written by House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

The vote on the farm bill was 234 against and 195 in favor, with 62 Republicans voting against it and only 24 Democrats in favor of it.

Randy Russell, a prominent agricultural lobbyist, said he could not remember when a farm bill had failed on final passage in either the House or the Senate and that he did not believe it had happened in modern times. The failure to pass the bill, Russell said on June 21, "is a negative reflection on the agriculture community broadly defined. Yesterday was not a good day for agriculture. It undercuts our effectiveness."

Until a few minutes before the vote on final passage, the mood in the House chamber was that it would pass. But then House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., went to the front of the room and spoke.

"I implore you to put aside the latest email or the latest flyer, comment, or rumor you have heard, assess the situation, look at the bill, and vote with me to move this forward," Lucas pleaded. Noting that he could not assure the members that there would be another attempt to write a farm bill if this one failed, Lucas said, "If you care about your folks, this institution, vote with us. If you don't and you leave here, they will say it is a broken institution with dysfunctional people. That is not true."


The voting began and, even though House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., gathered around Lucas, no one came up with an idea that might change the result.

SNAP in the spotlight

The major issue in the vote was the proposed cuts to the food stamp program, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. Congress attached the nation's most basic anti-hunger program to the farm bill in the 1960s and its reauthorization has been a reason to convince urban and suburban members of Congress with no farm constituents to vote for the bill. But the number of food stamp beneficiaries has risen to 47 million since the recession began in 2008 and conservatives have become upset about the number of people in the program and the nearly $80 billion this year.

The House Agriculture Committee-passed bill would cut $20.5 billion from the food stamp program over 10 years and the additional amendments that Republicans attached to the bill would require beneficiaries to be tested for drugs; to be rejected if they had ever been found guilty of felonies; and denied benefits if they could not get into a work program. Peterson, who was in charge of delivering Democratic votes for the bill, said some Democrats were willing to vote for a bill with the $20.5 billion cut, but after the amendments were added they went from "being offended to being angry."

Forty Democratic votes had been expected, but another 16 votes on top of the 24 Democrats who voted for it would still not have been enough to pass the bill. Ultimately political analysts blamed the Republican leadership for not lining up enough votes to pass the bill.

Earlier, the House voted to stick with the current sugar program when it rejected an amendment to make changes to the program on a vote of 206-221.

The American Sugar Alliance, which represents the beet and cane growers, had said it would render the current program ineffective and opposed the amendment. Peterson told Agweek he was worried that the sugar amendment might pass, but that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had helped round up votes to oppose it.

The dairy stabilization that Peterson put into the farm bill did not fare as well. The House approved an amendment sponsored by former House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., to take out what Goodlatte called a "supply management" program. The vote was 291 to 135, with 95 Democrats joining 196 Republicans in voting for it. The National Milk Producers Federation had helped Peterson write the program, but Peterson said the International Dairy Foods Association, which represents the dairy processors, "did a better job of lobbying" and convincing members that the price of milk might go up.


Corn, soybean and minor oilseed producers had favored an amendment that would have reduced the target prices in the commodity program in the bill, but Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, withdrew that amendment. Rice and peanut growers like the commodity title as written, and if it had passed, southern members would have been even less likely to vote for it.

Anti-hunger groups that opposed the food stamp cuts, the Environmental Working Group, which disliked key provisions of the bill, and conservative groups such as Heritage Action, which don't want any bill at all, celebrated a victory while farm leaders issued statements that they were disappointed in the lack of action.

The next step

It is unclear what happens next. The Senate has passed a farm bill. No one expected the House bill with its big food stamp cut to become law. The Senate cut only $4 billion over 10 years out of the food stamp program, and it has been assumed some compromise would be reached in conference. But the House has to take some action to pass a bill if it is to go to conference on the bill.

Peterson said he thinks the bill "can be salvaged," but he also noted that all farmers except the dairy producers would be happy with another extension of the 2008 farm bill. That would mean another round of the $5 billion direct payments that crop farmers get whether prices are high or low and no cuts to food stamps or restrictions on crop insurance. There has been talk that it might be difficult to pass another extension, but Peterson noted that Congress will have to take some action, or the permanent law from the 1930s and 1940s will go into effect. If Congress tries to pass anything but a simple extension, that quickly turns into a rewrite of the farm bill, he said.

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