Buckle your seatbelt for the House consideration of the farm bill

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The farm bill had a cakewalk through the Senate two weeks ago. 

Now it is swimming in a swamp infested with crocodiles as it tries to survive in the House of Representatives. House leadership called for amendments on Monday and received over 200, many of them from out and out opponents to farm legislation. 

The House Rules Committee sorted out the more salient and comprehensive amendments for debate, and late Tuesday House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas opened debate urging his House colleagues to accept the bi-partisan efforts of his committee that approved it 36 to 10. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen quickly.

Chairman Frank Lucas  opened House debate on H.R. 1947 saying, “The FARRM Act is a different farm bill for different times.  There is a reason we put reform in the title.  This is the most reform-minded bill in decades.  It repeals outdated policies while reforming, streamlining, and consolidating over 100 government programs.  It reforms the SNAP program – also known as the food stamp program - for the first time since the welfare reforms of 1996.  And, it makes tremendous reforms to farm programs.”  Among the changes he itemized were:

  1. A $40 billion savings over 10 years compared to the current farm programming budget.
  2. Elimination of $5 billion in direct payments.
  3. Repeal of the ACRE and SURE programs and a 36 percent cut in farm program spending.
  4. Streamlining conservation programs
  5. Tightening up qualification rules for nutrition program participants.

However, the Lucas assessment is not what everyone wanted to hear, since his own party wanted many more cuts and the Democratic Party was trying to fend off any cuts, particularly to nutrition programs.  Despite efforts on both sides to unplug agriculture from nutrition, it has been that coalition that has helped each other thrive in recent Farm Bill initiatives.

After nutrition programs, the most controversial part of the Farm Bill is crop insurance.  What was once dull and boring and of non-interest to farmers 20 years ago, has become the life of the risk management party with creative policies that have attracted 80 percent of farmers in recent years.  But the premium subsidies, now about 60 percent of the cost of the premium, are being criticized as direct payments have been in recent years.  After the Senate two weeks ago voted to put a means test on crop insurance premium subsidies and lower the subsidy to high dollar farmers, the House members have taken deadly aim at similar provisions, offering amendments to reduce premium subsidies, eliminate them, or cap them and require conservation compliance.

Ethanol even came under attack from former House Ag committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, who wants to curtail the use of corn for ethanol production to a percentage of annual carryover.  And Goodlatte has also leveled his gun sights on the dairy program, which was the reason the expired 2008 Farm Bill was renewed for another year.

230 amendments have been submitted to the House Rules Committee which Lucas says will reduce to 30 or 40 and submit them for debate.  The House Rules Committee was meeting Tuesday night to make its final selection of those for debate before the House business opens on Wednesday morning.

C-SPAN’s internet service may likely carry House debate as it occurs.

The debate is expected to last through Thursday and conclude with a vote.  The bill will require at least 213 votes to pass.  The House and Senate will appoint a conference committee to reconcile the differences, likely to focus on nutrition program spending and crop insurance subsidies.  While Lucas says 95 percent of the legislation can be agreed upon by a conference committee, he says the top Congressional leaders and the White House will have to negotiate the final issues, which are likely to be nutrition program spending.  The President has already indicated he does not like the way the House proposal treats nutrition programs.

Summary:

Following Senate approval of a Farm Bill two weeks ago, the House is now considering its proposal. Floor debate begins Wednesday morning with several dozen amendments to be considered.  Wide differences are expected between the eventual House bill and what the Senate has passed, and members of a conference committee will try to sort those out prior to the August recess.


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