Midway through the congressional August recess, there remained considerable uncertainty about prospects for passing a farm bill and getting it to the president’s desk before the current farm act, the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, expires on Sept. 30. This was especially the case in view of a likely showdown over the fiscal 2014 budget that will command much of what precious little time was left before the end of the 2013 fiscal year.
The House of Representatives will hold only nine sessions in September once it reconvenes on Sept. 9, and it was the House that will have to do the heavy lifting as the Senate passed its bipartisan farm bill in June, and the Senate leadership before the August recess appointed senators from both parties to a committee to negotiate with the House and fashion a common farm bill.
The House failed to pass its original version of the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act in June after its proposed $20.5 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over 10 years were rejected by Democrats as excessive and by a core of Republican members as too little.
The House then passed on July 11 what has been called a “farm-only” farm bill without the support of even one Democrat. That farm bill contained no nutrition title. Instead, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia convened a working group to develop a stand-alone nutrition bill. Indications were that bill will call for about $40 billion in cuts to SNAP over 10 years, which was twice the amount of cuts in the original House farm bill and 10 times the amount the Senate proposed to cut in its farm bill. It was expected the bill also would contain work and other requirements to tighten eligibility for SNAP benefits that helped torpedo the House’s original farm bill.
The legislative language of the stand-alone nutrition bill was not crafted by the time the House recessed, and the House leadership has yet to name members to conference with representatives of the Senate to come up with a final farm bill.
Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota, ranking member on the House Committee on Agriculture, lamented the House leadership’s decision to pass a “farm only” farm bill and propose a stand-alone nutrition bill that would implement cuts to SNAP and impose new requirements on benefit recipients saying their stance “effectively kills any hopes of passing a five-year farm bill this year.”
Mr. Peterson said he favored the House naming conferees immediately so negotiations with the Senate could begin on a final farm bill. The House conferees would bring to the table the “farm only” farm bill passed in July, and the Senate conferees would bring the Senate’s farm bill, which includes a nutrition title.
On the stump in his district during the recess, Mr. Peterson said a conference committee, should one convene, should be able to agree on a compromise bill to be submitted to both houses, but he was not optimistic such a bill would pass in the House.
“What’s going to be a compromise with the Senate will be opposed by a majority of House Republicans,” he told producers attending the Farmfest, an outdoor farm show held in Redwood Falls, Minn. “That’s why I can’t tell you what’s going to happen.”
On Aug. 13, a letter signed by 204 House Democrats was delivered to Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio urging that funding for nutrition programs be part of any future farm bill that comes before the House. All of the representatives who wrote to Mr. Boehner opposed the version of the farm bill that passed the House in July.
“The Republican leadership recently forced through a farm bill reauthorization, H.R. 2642, which did not include the nutrition title, a major part of the farm bill that would reauthorize SNAP,” they wrote. “We voted against this bill in large part because of this intentional omission. We strongly believe in the critical importance of SNAP. Given the essential nature of this program to millions of American families, the final language of the farm bill or any other legislation related to SNAP must be crafted to ensure that we do not increase hunger in America.”
Major farm organizations also pressed for the inclusion of a nutrition title in any compromise farm bill to be considered by the House and Senate.
Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in Mitchell, S.D., “We believe those who want reform in the nutrition program need to get together and craft something that puts our nutrition programs on a better path than they are now. But then put that back in with the farm bill. The point is, taking it out means the farm bill won’t get passed. It’s a political reality.”
Mr. Stallman said he often hears from farmers that farm bills should only be concerned with farm and agriculture policy, not nutrition.
“I’m here to tell you politics get worse if you do not have that combined coalition: those interested in nutrition programs and those interested in farm policies,” he said.
Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said she remained confident a farm bill would be passed, although perhaps not in September.
“It may slip into October, but we will get it done,” she said.
Mr. Peterson was less certain and suggested a two-year extension of the current farm act, which already was extended for one year, may be in the offing. He said a two-year extension may be preferred to another one-year extension so the farm act doesn’t expire in an election year.
It was assumed while members of Congress were in their home states and districts, staff in Washington was discussing how to narrow some of the differences between the Senate’s farm bill and the House “farm-only” farm bill in the hope a conference committee is established when Congress reconvenes. But the clock is ticking.