WASHINGTON — The lengthy process to finally approve a House farm bill and reconcile it with one passed in the Senate started off smoothly on Tuesday.
Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson and Republican Frank Lucas of Oklahoma spent an hour fawning over the bill and its $40 billion in 10-year savings during a floor debate, though tone and tenor will change when lawmakers begin pitching amendments to the bill on Wednesday.
The House could vote on the five-year bill as early as this week, though debate could spill into next week, and a fight over food stamp funding is likely before then.
But for now, at least, Republicans and Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee say their bill gives Congress the chance to pass a major bill with broad bipartisan support.
Lucas said the bill will lead to “reduced spending, smaller government and common-sense reform.” And, with only a few exceptions, Peterson said, “If I were still chairman I wouldn’t have a bill that was much different from what the chairman and I have put together.”
Most lawmakers and industry groups seem to agree on the biggest agriculture-related change in the bill, ending a direct subsidy program and expanding crop insurance to protect farmers against poor yields or price declines.
More than 130,000 Minnesotans take advantage of federal crop insurance progams every year, according to the Environmental Working Group, and a University of Minnesota study says state farmers bring in an average of $13,000 in subsidies annually.
Both Peterson and Lucas support the agriculture changes, which are largely similar to those passed by the U.S. Senate 66-27 last week (Both Minnesota senators voted yes). The House version certainly won’t pass that easily, but supporters simply want it to clear the chamber so House and Senate negotiators can forge a compromise bill.
“We need to make sure this piece of legislation goes through the process, it’s amended by the people of this House in an appropriate manner and we move this forward,” Rep. Tim Walz said.
Food stamps could be key
That’s not to say the reforms have universal support. A handful of outside groups on both sides of the aisle have pushed back against the bill, including the conservative Americans for Prosperity, which will launch a campaign against the bill in 15 congressional districts, including Peterson’s, calling it “a vehicle for massive welfare spending and taxpayer-funded corporate cronyism.”
And AFP’s opposition reveals one of the biggest issue facing the bill: cuts to food stamps.
The House’s farm bill cuts food stamp funding by about $2 billion a year, or about 3 percent, which is around four times deeper than the cuts in the Senate version. Conservatives, like AFP, would generally like to see deeper cuts, and liberals have said they’re too deep already. President Obama has threatened to veto the bill primarily because of the food stamp cuts, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she’s likely to oppose the bill because of them.
Several of the 200 proposed amendments to the farm bill have to do with food stamps, and while a group of liberals are pushing, likely unsuccessfully, to rescind the cuts, House Republicans may try to cut deeper, which Democrats warn could hurt the chamber’s ability to negotiate a compromise with the Senate this summer.
Peterson had hoped Congress could have reformed the food stamp program’s funding and aid formula, but absent that, he said lawmakers shouldn’t be afraid to pare back the program’s funding a bit.
“While I think it’s ridiculous to cut hundreds of billions of dollars out of nutrition programs, as some members have called for, I also don’t think its realistic to say we can’t cut one penny from these programs,” he said, “because clearly there isn’t a government program that couldn’t stand some reductions.”
Another amendment to watch involves a change in dairy policy and a new voluntary insurance program for the industry (the Associated Press has a more detailed break-down of the proposal). Speaker John Boehner is trying to win enough votes to strip the insurance program from the bill, and Peterson, who wrote the provision, is looking to keep it intact. But neither Boehner, who pledged to vote for the Farm Bill last week, nor Peterson seem willing to kill the overall bill if they don’t get their way on that count.
The farm bill traditionally receives bipartisan support, and it did coming out committee last month (it passed 36-10). With amendment debate set to start on Wednesday, Peterson asked the House to try and keep it that way.
“We need to keep this a bipartisan bill, and not stray too far from what was approved in committee,” he said. “I think what we’ve done here today is responsible reform, it’s a middle ground that will allow us to continue and complete the work on this bill.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry