Senate pushes House to begin farm bill conference
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow called on House Republican leaders Monday to begin talks promptly on their pared-back farm bill rather than wait for the House to act on a separate nutrition and food stamp package later this month or in September.
“I’m calling on [Speaker John Boehner] to send us what was passed on Thursday so that we can begin to go to conference,” the Michigan Democrat said. Stabenow described herself as “pretty stunned” last week by comments by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) suggesting talks might have to wait until after the nutrition bill is voted on.
“We’re anxious to go. I am very concerned that the process begins this week,” Stabenow said in a conference call with reporters. “We have only six legislative weeks before the current farm bill extension expires. … There’s no reason to wait or delay the process anymore.”
In fact, all signs indicate that the House Agriculture Committee already is moving in the direction Stabenow wants. Senate officials confirmed Monday afternoon that an advance sheet on the House farm bill had been received, which typically indicates the legislative papers will soon follow.
The Senate sent its version of the farm bill, approved in early June, to the House within a day. But the House papers are essential now since farm bills touch on tariff provisions, and the Ways and Means Committee leadership wants to protect the House’s prerogatives over tax and revenue legislation.
In fairness, Cantor’s remarks last week were ambiguous in that he did not directly say when the House will go to conference. Instead, he seemed to deflect the question and talked of moving quickly on the nutrition title.
It was Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) who initiated the floor exchange. “As the gentleman knows, we just passed a farm bill, and I’m wondering how soon he might expect to move to go to conference on that bill,” Hoyer said.
“I would say to the gentleman, ‘The chairman, the speaker and other members of leadership are in discussions about how to expedite an agreement on the farm bill,’” Cantor answered. “Certainly, it is our intention to act with dispatch to bring to the floor a bill dealing with the [food stamp] program, that portion of what was traditionally the farm bill.
“We intend to be bringing that vehicle to the floor at some time in the near future,” he added. “It is our intention to do so.”
Whatever the timetable for the House papers getting to the Senate, Cantor’s views are crucial since he has already had such an outsize impact on the direction of the farm bill debate.
The Virginia Republican contributed to the collapse of the farm bill last month by pushing hard for amendments to the food stamp program that helped to drive off Democratic support. Embarrassed by the loss, he came back last week and won, this time by cutting out the entire nutrition title covering not just food stamps but also local food banks around the country.
It was a hard-fought, face-saving win but not without a price for his party. Forty-seven Republicans had to switch their votes, and in many cases, they were conservatives who toward a reform agenda cutting crop insurance subsidies, for example, or allowing more innovation in food aid overseas.
With the help of conservatives like Ryan, the House had come close to breaking through on these fronts. But the only real substantive change in the commodity title was to drop the five-year sunset provisions. This essentially doubles down on the subsidies or sugar program, which Republicans complained about by making them permanent law.
Ryan was careful to insert remarks in the Congressional Record, saying he still wanted tighter income limits on subsidies for farmers. But for an intellectual leader of his party, it was a remarkable turnaround, especially for someone who saw firsthand the devastating impact of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remarks in the 2012 presidential campaign.
The Wall Street Journal hailed the vote of as a “Healthy Farm Rebellion.” The paper urged Republicans to impose real wealth tests next on food stamp beneficiaries “so people living in mansions or with plump bank accounts aren’t on the food dole.”
But more than 95 percent of all food stamp households have incomes below 130 percent of poverty, or about $28,680 for a family of four. And without having to split up the farm bill, Ryan was able to use his powers as Budget Committee chairman to move a reconciliation bill last year that would have addressed the journal’s concerns by reimposing a Reagan era $2,000 asset test on all households.
POLITICO asked to speak with Ryan about his farm bill votes, but a spokesman said he would not be available. Asked what really mattered most to the chairman: ending corporate giveaways or the chance to change food stamps, the spokesman answered, “It’s about getting the best policies in place to help improve people’s lives.”
“I’m willing to take whatever the House gives us and work with the chairman and ranking member of the House committee, and I’m confident we can put things back together,” Stabenow said. “That’s what it’s going to take. Not just bipartisan support in the Senate but bipartisan support in the House if there is going to be a farm bill.”