Thursday, July 12, 2012

Farm Bill Passes Out of House Committee with an Uncertain Floor Fate

The House Agriculture Committee passed its vision of a 2012 Farm Bill early in the morning (Thursday, July 12), following 15 hours of grueling and sometimes contentious debate and discussion over a series of 109 offered bill amendments. A total of 44 amendments were passed during the mark-up session; none directly impacting the Conservation Title (Title II).  A list of passed amendments can be found here.

In the end, the bill passed by a healthy and bipartisan 24-vote margin, 35-11 (roll call vote summary will be posed here as soon as it becomes available).  Thirteen Democrats joined 22 Republicans in voting for the measure. The four Republicans who voted against the bill expressed concern over commodity provisions and stated their desire to cut even more than the $35 billion already eliminated over ten years from its nearly trillion dollar price tag. The seven Democrats who voted against the bill opposed what they described as draconian and excessive cuts to the bill's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or "SNAP").

The House version of the bill contrasts significantly with a Senate farm bill passed by that chamber in June. That bill cuts $23 billion from direct spending, with much of the $12 billion difference between the chambers' measures represented by the steeper House SNAP cuts ($4.5 billion in Senate compared to the House's $16.5 billion). Amendments that would have both increased the amount of SNAP cuts and reduced the nutrition assistance cuts to an amount equal to those in the Senate bill were voted down by the House Committee yesterday. However, proponents of both deeper and shallower SNAP cuts are sure to raise the issue again either on the House floor and during any Senate-House conference committee negotiations. There are also some significant commodity subsidy policy differences between the two versions that Agriculture Committee leaders from both chambers hope to iron out in conference.

The possibility is growing that House Speaker John Boehner (OH-8) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA-7) may try to avoid a bitter floor debate on Farm Bill crop subsidies and nutrition programs (and to a lesser extent rural development), when both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats would pick apart the bill from their respective positions. Seeking to steer clear of such a fight, House leadership may opt to leave the House bill in the hands of Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK-3) and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN-7), providing them the opportunity to negotiate a Farm Bill deal with their Senate counterparts (Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Pat Roberts (R-KS)) in conference committee. The Farm Bill product that emerges from that process would then simply be subject to one more roll call vote on the House floor. It is noteworthy that in statements this morning both Peterson and Stabenow rejected the straight-to-conference approach in favor of a quick full House floor consideration.

Whether the House opts for that process or for a full-blow floor debate, the legislative clock is ticking. The authority of the current Farm Bill lapses at midnight on September 30, and a mere 13 scheduled working days remain on the legislative calendar before both the Senate and House recess for their annual August exodus from the Washington, DC heat and humidity.

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