Farm Bill’s Cloudy Forecast

House GOP Is Eyeing Authorization Measure With Budget Cut Lens

Posted March 30, 2012 at 5:31pm

Even though the House Republican budget is dead on arrival in the Senate, the benchmark it sets for spending battles could cause serious headaches for top Agriculture Committee members tasked with passing a farm bill this year.

The authorization measure is one of the last major bills left on the Congressional docket in 2012 and already has taken millions of dollars in hits from previous deficit reduction efforts. On the House and Senate Agriculture committees, the budget targets created by House Republicans — lower than those agreed to in last summer’s Budget Control Act — could further complicate the already difficult task of writing the legislation.

Agriculture committees are typically among the more bipartisan on Capitol Hill. And the response to the House-passed budget formulated by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — with its significant cuts to domestic discretionary spending — from not just Democrats but also the top House Republican on the Agriculture panel was indicative of how pressing the legislation is and how concerned bill-writers are about being able to get the legislation done right.

Farm bills always bring out massive lobbying campaigns and become magnets for partisan causes, such as the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act that was viewed as a victory for the Republican revolution of the 1990s.

But House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said last week that the current political climate has made it more difficult than ever to move a farm bill.

“The real challenge right now, as you know, is that few things are moving anywhere in any way. It’s kind of a challenging thing to be an Agriculture Committee chairman in the House or the Senate,” Lucas said, adding that the task for himself and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) remains moving legislation with “substantially less” money than in previous years.

Although he acknowledged this reality, Lucas has also sought to give himself some wiggle room. On the day the Ryan budget was unveiled, Lucas released a statement that said: “I would caution people about reading too much into the numbers or policy proposals in either the President’s budget or the Ryan budget. They are only suggestions. During our process, both policy and deficit reduction targets will be developed … as we write a fiscally responsible Farm Bill that ensures Americans continue to have a safe, affordable, and stable food supply.”

Still, with the Ryan budget’s House passage last week, the spending constraint considerations are real.

“It will make it very difficult to pass, no doubt,” Stabenow said. “The level of cuts they’re talking about, even Chairman Lucas expressed concerns, so we’re going to move forward with the bipartisan agreement that we put together in the fall, which gives a significant deficit reduction, but it’s fair.”

The farm bill, which must be reauthorized every five years, bundles several important initiatives, including benefits for farmers and ranchers, food stamps and conservation policies. The Ryan budget, passed by the House last week, calls for $122.5 billion in cuts from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and $29.3 billion from agricultural commodity and insurance programs.

The committee already has been working around cuts imposed by the failure of this fall’s Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction of $23 billion from farm programs — a particularly tough sell for Democrats — which has caused the Senate committee to push back internal dates for releasing plans at least three times, according to aides.

Top Members and aides on the committee said the “hope” is still to get a bill done by this spring.

“Clearly, that’s a tougher, a steeper hill to climb,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.), a member of the Agriculture panel. “We’re going to probably be marking up a bill … in the next few weeks, and we’ll see whether we can get time for it, for consideration on the floor, but I think under any circumstance, we know that there are going to be significant reductions in spending in a lot of areas.”

The effort has not been any easier in the House, where Lucas has taken a slower approach to putting together his legislation.

According to GOP aides, Lucas has been hesitant to introduce his version of the farm bill until he is sure Stabenow will be able to move hers through the Senate.

“The biggest wild card there … is that the chairman has said all along, very publicly, that he’s not going to mark up a bill if the Senate isn’t going to do it,” a GOP aide said.

Lucas last week acknowledged that progress in the Senate would boost his panel’s ability to produce a bill. “Right now, it’s fair to say the Senate is running ahead of the House, and if the Senate could move something then out of committee … we could get our work done,” he said.

But with 13 freshmen on the committee — many of whom came into office on promises to cut federal spending — it has taken significant time to educate Lucas’ new panel members, and the chairman doesn’t want to “hang a bill out there, especially with all these freshmen on the committee.”

Republican aides speculated that given the demands of conservatives for more spending cuts, Lucas could ultimately decide to use Ryan’s $33 billion in cuts that are included in the budget’s reconciliation instructions as a blueprint for trimming spending under the bill.