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House Narrowly Passes Farm Bill

By: David Rogers
July 11, 2013 03:51 PM EDT

The House narrowly passed a pared-back farm bill Thursday after Republican leaders stripped out the nutrition title impacting food stamps and local food banks ‹ to win back conservative votes.

The 216-208 roll call avoids a repeat of last month¹s embarrassing collapse and for the first time in a year will allow House-Senate talks on a final farm package.

All but 12 Republicans supported the measure ‹ in contrast with the 62 defections in June. And it was a badly needed, face-saving win for Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), whose tactics contributed to last month¹s loss and had bet heavily on the new approach to recover.

Nonetheless, the decision to jettison the nutrition title breaks with nearly a half century of precedent. And the GOP victory came at a huge political cost, splitting American agriculture and driving a wedge between urban and rural lawmakers who have long worked together on farm legislation.

All 196 Democrats voted in opposition, and there was a genuine fury displayed by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who repeatedly delayed the emotional floor proceedings. The intense partisanship and often tone-deaf management of the past month have fed into doubts in Cantor¹s own party over his temperament as a would-be speaker.

"Farm bills have been bipartisan for generations and we made it a mess," said one senior Republican. In the process, the GOP gave up precious leverage to enact nutrition reforms in talks with the Senate. And dozens
of fiscal conservatives, who complained about the high cost of the farm bill last month, were pressured to switch their votes when the only change was removing food aid for the poor.

"This is a victory for farmers and conservatives who desired desperately needed reforms to these programs," Cantor said in a statement. But a solid phalanx of outside groups, like the Heritage Foundation, Club for
Growth and Taxpayers for Common Sense, remained opposed to the level of commodity and crop insurance subsides in the bill.

Significant reforms are made, including the termination of direct cash payments to producers. But the 10-year cost is $195.6 billion, and the commodity title goes much further than the Senate in using government-set target prices as a safety net for farmers.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) had initially resisted the split-bill strategy but signed on this week in a last ditch effort to get something to conference with the Senate. To drive home the
same point, Speaker John Boehner¹s chief-of-staff Mike Sommers held a conference call with farm groups in which he warned that failure would doom any chance of a farm bill this year.

Powerful cotton, rice, peanut and sugar cane interests worked with Lucas and the GOP to round up votes. But the two leading agriculture groups ‹ the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union ‹ came out
against the GOP strategy. And Thursday morning the typically conservative AFBF leadership came out with a letter urging lawmakers to vote no on the bill.

A fresh 608-page text was filed only Wednesday evening, minus Title IV covering nutrition programs. Amendments adopted in last month¹s farm debate are wrapped into the new measure. But the bill was protected from further changes under expedited proceedings on the House floor.

At the same time there were two significant revisions to supplant decades-old commodity price and production provisions for grains, upland cotton and milk, for example.

Dating back to 1938 and 1949, these have been a "permanent law" backstop of sorts for farm bills and source of political leverage for commodity groups. But they are largely impractical today and the new commodity title will now take their place as the new permanent law going forward.

On the surface, this is a change advocated by conservatives. But it could make it harder to pass farm bills in the future, and it appears sugar, cotton and rice stand to gain potentially.

"We are quite concerned that without a workable nutrition title, it will prove to be nearly impossible to adopt a bill that can be successfully conferenced with the Senate¹s version," the Farm Bureau¹s president Bob Stallman told the House. And Stallman singled out the commodity law changes, warning that "to replace permanent law governing agricultural programs without hearing from so much as a single witness on what that law should be replaced with is not how good policy is developed."

Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee and a former chairman, said the real beauty of the existing 1938 and 1949 laws was that they are unworkable and all sides must come together every five years to craft a farm bill.

Peterson said the risk now is that if a modern commodity tittle is substituted as permanent law, the winners will be less willing to compromise. As a result he said conservation and research programs will be sacrificed.

"We were doing fine until we got to the floor and the leadership screwed this up," Peterson told Republicans of his partnership with Lucas. "But no you¹ve got to have to make this a partisan bill. Some people on that side have been trying to make this a partisan bill for four months and they have finally succeeded."

"I told my caucus something that I thought would never happen," he said emotionally. "You have now managed to make me a partisan and that¹s a darn hard thing to so. But you accomplished it. And this is a bad bill that should be defeated."


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