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Stunned ag leaders regroup after farm bill failure

In the end, it was a stunning defeat in the House of Representatives Thursday for a farm bill labeled as reform. The House Agriculture Committee, led by a patient Oklahoma populist, Frank Lucas, had rejected calls for cuts of $31 billion or more to food stamp spending from the Republican party's small government reformers. The ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, backed the bill's $20.5 billion trim to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), even though, as he put it later, "there were people in my party that were upset that I agreed to one penny of SNAP cuts."

Peterson thought he had about 50 Democrats who would still vote for the bill, those who hoped that a compromise with the Senate later would result in much smaller SNAP Cuts. When the vote came, only 24 were on board. Lucas and the GOP leadership failed to convince enough Republicans; 62 voted against the bill. The defeat of 234 to 195 was far short of the 218 majority needed.

The two leaders vowed not to give up.

"On this day, on this vote, the House worked its will," Lucas said in a statement. "I’m obviously disappointed, but the reforms in H.R. 1947- $40 billion in deficit reduction, elimination of direct payments, and the first reforms to SNAP since 1996 - are so important that we must continue to pursue them. We are assessing all of our options, but I have no doubt that we will finish our work in the near future and provide the certainty that our farmers, ranchers, and rural constituents need."

Peterson told reporters in a press conference: "I have talked to Chairman Lucas and Chairwoman (Debbie) Stabenow (head of the Senate Agriculture Committee) in the last hour, and we don't have any kind of plan at this point."

But after four years of hard work on a farm bill, Peterson said they aren't giving up. He told Agriculture.com that it's possible for the Republican leadership to go back to the House Rules Committee with the original bill and bring it back to the floor with no amendments. Peterson thinks he would still have about 50 Democrats who would vote for it.

"I think there's a fair chance there'll be some kind of a process next week to bring something back," he said.

Peterson said that he felt support for the bill unraveling as amendments were passed Thursday. A dairy risk management program Peterson championed was replaced with a dairy margin insurance program offered by the former chair of the Ag Committee, Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). That led to the defection of about five of Peterson's Democratic dairy policy allies, he said.

Then, at the urging of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Republicans passed the last amendment of the day, one that allows states to set up pilot programs requiring food stamp recipients to seek work. Cantor cited independent audits of the SNAP program that call for reforms. Democrats said states would be able to keep savings from the program for anything they wanted, and that the experiment wouldn't provide jobs for people already suffering in a poor economy.

"That was really bad timing," Peterson said of the amendment, offered by Representative Steve Southerland (R-FL), "because that was the straw that broke the camel's back."

The bad news of the farm bill defeat was digitally instant in the countryside.

"It was really disappointing," said American Soybean Association's president, Danny Murphy, who was following the debate from his farm in Canton, Mississippi. "Most of the amendments they moved along were going the way the American Soybean Association would like." The House had rejected a move to limit crop insurance subsidies as well as one that would have ended the Market Assistance Program that promotes exports of American crops and meats.

If Congress does nothing, "we still have the problem that we don't have a five-year farm bill," Murphy told Agriculture.com. That leaves the problem of the antiquated 1949 farm bill kicking in after the end of the current federal fiscal year on September 30.

"It will be up to the House Agriculture Committee leadership to regroup and move forward," Murphy said.

No one expects that to be easy.

"It looks to me like they're going to have to put together a leadership deal with both parties," said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union. When asked if he meant House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Johnson said, "I kind of think so."

"Many of us have been saying for a long time, God only know what will happen when this (the farm bill) gets to the House floor. I guess this underscores that."

Both Peterson and Lucas have pointed out many times that without a farm bill, there will be no reform, no cuts to the direct payments farmers are getting at a cost of $5 billion a year, and no cuts to SNAP.

One influential group, bankers, was already making a pitch for revisiting the farm bill.

"Farmers and ranchers and their lenders need a new five-year bill to make long-term planning decisions," said Bill Loving, chairman of the Independent Community Bankers Association. "Having this important safety net in place allows producers to secure loans and provides some assurance to lenders of their repayment ability. The bill would have reauthorized important USDA business and farm loan programs and strengthened crop and revenue insurance programs that have become essential risk management tools for most farmers. Differences need to be overcome for a farm bill to be enacted this year."

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