Farm bill braves divided Congress once more
The U.S. Senate last week passed its version of the next farm bill, and, with the blessings of Speaker John Boehner, the House was ready to take up its version this week.
But how soon a final, reconciled farm bill will emerge from the deeply divided Congress remains to be seen.
In fact, don't hold your breath. The reason for this lack of optimism is a political reality that separates a Republican House dominated by fiscal hawks and a Democratic Senate dominated by liberals.
The Senate's version is basically a carbon copy of the farm bill it passed last year, and the House Agriculture Committee's version is a near facsimile of the farm bill it passed last year.
Therein lies the problem. A new dairy program, the deletion of direct payments and new crop insurance offerings are key elements of the two bills. Room to compromise appears to exist on those and other key issues, save one -- food stamps, which represent almost 80 percent of the entire farm bill's cost, estimated to be upward of $100 billion a year.
The Senate shaved an average of $400 million a year from the food stamp program. Even those small cuts -- in Washington terms -- from a $78 billion program drew protests from senators with large urban constituencies.
The House Agriculture Committee, however, is calling for five times that amount of cuts to food stamps -- an average of $2 billion a year -- in its $94 billion-a-year version of the farm bill.
That gap between the House and the Senate versions appears to set up a repeat of last year's standoff. Even though Boehner on Monday appeared ready to vote for the House version, whether he can coax a majority of his fellow Republicans -- many of whom want even deeper cuts in food stamps -- to vote with him remained an open question.
The full House was expected to vote on the farm bill by Thursday, which was after our print deadline. That's assuming Boehner could round up the required 218 votes to pass the bill. Remember, this is a speaker who failed to get members of his own party to support budget compromises aimed at avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff last winter. A betting person would not want to count on Boehner's ability to deliver votes on any legislation, let alone a contentious farm bill.
But arithmetic is the foundation of politics. Unless Boehner had enough votes to pass a farm bill, it may be presumed that he wouldn't bring it the floor.
The real work will start once the House and Senate pass their versions of the farm bill. A conference committee will need to come up with a single bill that will attract enough votes in the House and Senate to pass. That outcome is likely to depend on how much food stamps will be cut.
The farm bill is essential to U.S. agriculture. Farmers need the certainty of knowing exactly what's in the new bill so they can make decisions for the upcoming harvest and beyond. A decent crop insurance program is part of the picture that must be in place before farmers can make many other decisions.
That's why Congress must find the political wherewithal to pass a farm bill this year. We've seen what failure to accomplish that looks like. It damages the nation and it damages agriculture.
We simply can't afford for Congress to fail again.