WASHINGTON — Of all the lawmakers disappointed about the final fiscal cliff deal Congress passed two weeks ago, Rep. Collin Peterson was among the most vocal.
Peterson was the only Minnesota Democrat to vote against the final deal, in large part because of the way it funded agriculture programs, extending current policy for nine months in lieu of a five-year farm bill most agriculturally-inclined lawmakers supported. Such a long-term plan, which Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture committee helped craft, would have ended direct subsidies to farmers and saved $35 billion over 10 years, and it included a novel dairy-support program Peterson wrote himself. None of that was included in the fiscal cliff bill, and Congress effectively has until the end of the year to either pass a long-term bill or extend current policy yet again.
In the days after the fiscal cliff bill’s passage, Peterson blamed both Democratic and Republican leadership for turning their backs on the farm bill, and he’s got messages for both. Peterson has vowed not to help write another long-term bill unless Republicans give it a path to the House floor, and as for his party, he told Politico the night of the cliff vote: “I’m not going to talk with those guys. I’m done with them for the next four years. They are on their own. They don’t give a sh-t. about me, anyway.”
Last week, Peterson talked with MinnPost about the farm bill saga and the chances one passes this session:
MinnPost: When did you realize a five-year farm bill was dead?
PETERSON: When we didn’t get it brought up before the election. I though it was very unlikely they would do it in whatever they came up with at the end of the year. There were people trying to be optimistic, but I never thought there was much chance.
MP: How did the end of the year negotiations around the farm bill develop? Did it ever come up or was it all so focused on fiscal cliff issues and taxes that this was not something on anyone’s radar?
CP: It’s hard to know because we weren’t in the room. When the thing started to break finally — must have been the Friday after Christmas — I think I probably got five calls that day from Nancy Pelosi, asking me questions related to what was being discussed. I also had some discussions that day and the day before with [Sen. Debbie] Stabenow and Pat Leahy, but the only avenue I had into the talks was Nancy Pelosi, and she was our biggest ally in this whole thing. I think she was the only leadership person the whole room who was actually trying to help us.
There were people in there trying to hurt us, and people who didn’t care. The president didn’t care. … At the end of the day, when [Joe] Biden made the deal with [Mitch] McConnell, the White House basically said, ‘We don’t care what you do, just don’t let the milk prices go up.’
MP: You were pretty frustrated after this whole thing came down. Why wasn’t this able to get done the way you were hoping it would get done?
CP: This is exactly what I was afraid of and why I pushed so hard before the election to get this done. I knew there was going to be no outcome in this endgame that was going to be good for us because we weren’t going to be in the room, and you basically have no one at the table who had any idea what’s going on. As I said, Nancy Pelosi called me numerous times because she wanted to understand what the situation was. But [John] Boehner was hostile because he never liked any farm programs and he’s very much against the dairy stuff we were trying to do. I think McConnell didn’t really care, and Stabenow, she over-played her hand, in my opinion.
As this thing went down, she was insisting on funding these so-called “orphan programs.” … Her trying to attach that subjected the deal to a point of order in the Senate. [Note: In this case, the “orphan programs” were unfunded, and since bills appropriating funds need to originate in the House, it couldn’t move forward in the Senate]. And that was the objection from McConnell and [Pat] Roberts, that they couldn’t have something that was going to be a potential point of order. The dairy part of it was not subject to any point of order, so all that would have had to happen was, if Obama would have said, put the dairy stuff in, it would have been done. And if Stabenow would have dropped her orphan programs and said, do the dairy stuff in a one-year extension, that would have carried some weight. But that gave McConnell an excuse to basically take it away from her and basically write it in their shop.
This is exactly what I was afraid of. And when we get to the next crisis here, people are going to try and drag us into that. I’m not participating in that, they should forget about that.
MP: You said that they’re on their own, you’re not going to talk to them for four years.
CP: They obviously don’t care. What I do is agriculture; it’s the only committee I’m on. They have no interest in helping us, then I’m not going to go out of my way to do anything to help them. To be honest I don’t think they need me. I don’t think they care, so it’s probably a moot point.
MP: You’re talking about broad issues there, right, not just agriculture issues?
CP: I’m not inclined to help them in whatever they’re trying to do, and, you know, a lot of what they’re trying to do I don’t agree with anyway. We haven’t seen the final outcome of this gun thing, but they’re backing the same interest groups that have come up with all these failed ideas in the past. That isn’t getting us any place.
MP: Your conflict with John Boehner is two-fold, the first being that he opposes some of these dairy programs that you support and the second being that he wouldn’t bring up this bill in the House even after it passed committee. What are your expectations on how anything involving the farm bill might develop this session?
CP: I have no idea. He said when he took over as speaker he would follow regular order. He didn’t. Now he has reaffirmed this when he was reelected last week. He said we’re going back to regular order. Well, I’ll believe it when I see it. I am not going to go through this process that we went through last year.
We were the only committee that acted responsibly. We were the only committee that did what we were asked to. We were the only committee that passed a bill, bipartisan, both chambers, during the super committee process that cut the budget. Nobody else did that. At the end of the day, what ended up happening, we got stopped from even bringing it up and then, worse than that, the people that acted irresponsibly got money and got benefited in this fiscal cliff deal and the people that did what they were supposed to do got screwed over. So I’m not going to do that again.
We can live with an extension of the current [farm bill]. I wrote that as chairman, it’s not perfect, there are things that I’d like to see funded that have run out, but I’m not going to participate in some kind of an exercise that gets us into a bind. So I’m not interested in marking up anything until I get a written assurance from those guys that they’ll bring it up.
MP: Current extension of the law means keeping direct payments, not getting those deficit reduction savings?
CP: Yes. Nobody else is doing anything to reduce the deficit, why should we?
MP: Is there enough time to get a five-year farm bill done before this nine-month extension ends?
CP: There is time to do it if we decide to go ahead with it, but I’m not going to go ahead with it unless I get assurance [that it will come to the floor]. If they won’t give me any type of assurance, I’m not going to participate in the mark-up, I don’t think the Democratic members will and they can’t mark up the bill without us. And I don’t think [Chairman Frank] Lucas wants to go through this either without some kind of assurance. … If we get through [the sequester] unscathed, that will take up the first three, four months. If they still haven’t told us anything, then it could be a situation where we do run out of time.
My expectation, given how this place is working, is that we’ll get to September 30, we won’t have a bill.
MP: Would a 2013 farm bill look similar to the one passed out of the House committee last session?
CP: Probably fairly similar. Another issue is what will the baseline [funding] be. And we won’t know that until March. So that could affect us. There is some talk that they might just [end] the direct payments so they don’t have to cut the military, something I’m very opposed to. …
Everything needs to be cut. The military can stand its cuts just as much as agriculture or the Department of Education or whatever. The reality to get out of this budget mess is that everybody’s going to be cut whose getting government money, and at the end of the day, everybody’s going to pay more, or we’re not going to get this fixed. That’s the reality, I don’t know when it’s going to happen. Maybe this year, next year, maybe four years from now, I don’t know. But at some point that’s what’s going to happen.