Friday, August 3, 2012

Showcase, Short-term Farm Disaster Aid Package Passes House - Going Nowhere Fast

While the worst U.S. drought in 56 years intensified, late yesterday afternoon, House Republicans pushed through a largely showcase, short-term $383 million package of loans and grants for livestock producers and a limited number of farmers. The House disaster relief bill (HR 6233) focuses on providing loans and grants to producers of livestock and fruit trees impacted by the drought during the current (2012) Fiscal Year, and would pay for its $383 million price tag by capping the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The measure passed 223 to 197 (roll call vote list here), with 35 mostly farm-state Democrats joining Republicans in support. Democrats voting against the bill objected to the manner in which the farm legislation has been handled, while some Republicans who voted against the bill objected to its high costs. Most Democrats held out for the broader bill, and also objected to the bill's GOP author's manner of offsetting costs by cutting conservation program funding.

While the bill will give farm state House Republicans political cover when they go home to face drought-stricken farmers, the prospects for its consideration by the Senate are slim and its likelihood of enactment into law effectively non-existent. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said earlier in the week that he would be happy to call up anything the House passes, as long as it looks similar to the disaster-aid provisions that the Senate passed in June as part of its five-year farm bill. It does not. The Senate-passed measure would help a broader range of agricultural producers than does the House GOP bill. But while on the surface it might look as if the Senate is blocking further action on disaster aid, the opposition to the House's one-year disaster assistance approach is much broader than that. Farm and conservation groups largely favor providing disaster aid, but what most actually want is a comprehensive five-year farm bill (one that includes disaster provisions that would preclude Congress's need to address drought and flood losses on an annual basis). And those groups are concerned that passing the GOP version of short-term drought aid might delay Congressional consideration of the long-term, comprehensive farm bill even more than it has already been.

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, took to the Senate floor soon after the House disaster aid bill vote to say that lawmakers would work informally over their August recess to try to put together a new disaster relief measure to present to Congress when it meets again in September; a bill more consistent with the Senate's approach.

On the issue of farm bill passage, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH-8) on Thursday showed no signs of moving the measure to the House floor anytime soon, noting that the farm bill passed out of the House Agriculture Committee lacks the support needed to move beyond the House, primarily because of divisions over food-stamp funding in the farm bill's nutrition title. Boehner stressed, "Frankly I haven’t seen 218 votes in the middle to pass a farm bill."

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