Farm Bill Next Partisan Victim?

Posted June 26, 2012 at 6:07pm

House Republican leaders are facing a minefield in moving a farm bill this year, as fundamental policy disagreements on both sides of the aisle might render the agriculture overhaul even more difficult to pass than the transportation bill.

As has often been the case in the 112th Congress, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) faces an impasse in presenting a bill to his right flank — in this case particularly because the bulk of the farm bill funds a conservative abhorrence: food stamps.

If the House Agriculture Committee cuts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program too deeply, however, Democrats will shun the bill, which leaves Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) a perhaps impossibly narrow path to passage.

Outside conservative groups are ready to mobilize against the bill.

Under the Dome, a contingent of tea party conservatives, referring to the legislation as a “food welfare bill,” are trying to stymie it before it ever gets considered, a move resembling the backlash against the House highway bill that never even got a floor vote.

“We’re trying to figure out how to keep this bill from coming to the floor altogether. It’ll divide the conservative movement from Republicans in such a deep way right before the election that it could be truly devastating,” an aide to a conservative Member said. “If leadership tries to move the food welfare bill onto the House floor, they’ll have tremendous and sustained problems from conservatives in and out of Washington.”

If they do not move on the bill, House leaders risk being boxed in by the Senate. That chamber passed a bipartisan farm bill last week, 64-35, and House inaction could help drive home Senate Democrats’ message that the House is the problem in Washington, D.C., dysfunction.

Recognizing all of this, leadership is approaching the deliberations with a cautious skepticism. The Agriculture Committee will mark up the bill July 11 and, depending on how that goes, leadership will decide whether to put the kibosh on floor consideration.

Still, even if the bill does get considered and passed, a conference committee would have little time to reconcile differences before the current authorization expires Sept. 30. Complicating matters, the House has just six legislative weeks scheduled from after the Independence Day recess until Sept. 30, when funding for the current fiscal year also expires. That leaves little room for a farm bill fight if, as it did last year, a spending clash takes Congress to the brink.

“It’s hard to see a path forward for a conference report to be completed before the election,” a GOP leadership aide said.

That leaves a short-term extension a distinct possibility, punting the issue into the next Congress.

The difficulty  passing a farm bill is not a surprise to anyone, and Lucas has acknowledged as much in recent interviews.

He told National Journal, for instance: “My friends on the hard left don’t want to spend any money on rural America. And my friends on the hard right don’t want to spend any money for anybody on any occasion or any reason.”

Indeed, about 80 percent of the approximately $1 trillion in mandatory 10-year farm bill spending goes toward food assistance programs, and most of that goes to SNAP, or food stamps, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Lucas has indicated he is planning about a $14 billion cut to the program, $10 billion more than the Senate’s mark. But that might not be enough to appease some Republicans.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a conservative member of the Agriculture Committee, said he anticipates the measure will clear the committee, but not before a flurry of amendments cut more out of food stamp spending.

“It’ll be a long battle,” he said. “There’s a lot more concern about fiscal issues in the House than there ever has been in the Senate, so we’ll face that head on and have a lot of amendments in committee on the cost of food stamps.”

Democrats on the committee, however, are seeking to limit cuts to the program.

“We’re working to find a way to make those cuts without having a severe impact on benefits,” a Democratic aide said.

Sixteen of the 26 Republican members of the Agriculture Committee are freshmen, and so far, Republican freshmen have not held their fire on amendments, proposing dozens during the appropriations process.

Even beyond the committee, other Members have their eye on the issue.

At a press availability last week, Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.), who is not an Agriculture Committee member, lambasted SNAP.

“This program has gotten completely out of control, and I hope that when we get an opportunity to deal with it, that we’ll do the responsible thing and turn back to those hard-working Americans some of their tax dollars,” he said.

In fact, the Agriculture Committee markup was delayed from this week for that very reason: The Agriculture, rural development, and Food and Drug Administration appropriations bill was supposed to come to the floor this week, and Lucas wanted all hands on deck to beat back harmful amendments.

The appropriations bill will not likely see the floor after all because of a packed schedule, but the Agriculture Committee markup remains set for July 11, aides said.