WASHINGTON — The U.S. House narrowly passed a farm bill without a controversial section funding nutrition programs on Thursday, the latest chapter in what has become a now deeply partisan saga over federal agriculture policy.
The bill, which would replace direct subsidies for farmers with a crop insurance program — a change many members and most industry groups support — passed 216-208 with every Democrat opposed, including the three Minnesotans on the House Agriculture Committee. Republicans had brought the bill to the floor after competing coalitions of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans scuttled a comprehensive farm bill in June over opposing concerns about cuts to food stamp funding. Leadership managed to limit GOP defections to just 12 on Thursday (every Minnesota member voted along party lines), after 62 opposed the bill in June.
Democrats strongly objected to splitting food stamps from the agriculture sections, saying it breaks the long tradition of Congress setting federal nutrition policy alongside agriculture policy. The White House and Senate Democrats also opposed the bill on those grounds.
That doesn’t mean this is the end of the line, though. Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson said the House and Senate could meet to forge a compromise farm bill based on what the House passed Thursday and the Senate passed one month ago.
In a statement after the vote, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Sen. Debbie Stabenow called the House bill “not a real farm bill and an insult to rural America,” but said the Senate would go to a joint committee if the House did.
“This is a step in the process,” Peterson said. “I don’t agree with this bill, but this bill has no chance of coming out of conference, none. And if we do get a bill out of conference, it won’t look anything like this.”
The House Agriculture Committee could take up funding for food stamps and nutrition programs or it could go through the budget appropriations process, Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas said during House debate. Or, Peterson offered after the vote, nothing could happen at all, and current food stamp funding levels would stay the same going forward (unlike agriculture policy, nutrition assistance programs do not need regular review and reform from Congress).
Peterson: GOP had an easier time than he predicted
Farm bills are traditionally deeply bipartisan affairs, but a spat over the food stamp cuts led to deep divisions in both parties. Republicans wanted more than the $2 billion in annual cuts included in the original House bill; Democrats wanted less (food stamps make up about 80 percent of the farm bill’s cost; the $2 billion cut was about 3 percent of the annual food stamp budget).
Even so, Democrats now say they had the votes to send the full farm bill to a conference committee with the Senate in June, until the House began amending the bill. After lawmakers attached a Republican provision requiring food stamp recipients find a job or participate in workforce training, many Democrats decided to oppose the bill instead, and it failed.
This week, GOP leaders decided to split the bill in two and try moving a largely uncontroversial agriculture title (with one important change) while holding back funding for food stamps and other nutrition programs for further changes. Democrats objected, and there was some doubt, up until the House started voting, that the Republicans would have the votes to move the bill.
In the end, though, “It was easier than I thought it would be for them,” Peterson said.
Democrats slam bill, process on House floor
The debate preceding the vote was bitter, and about as far as possible from the congenial, bipartisan praise heaped on the bill in June. In a fiery speech, Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz slammed Republicans for “hatching this abomination of in the middle of the night and forcing it here because of extremist elements” against the wishes of hundreds of major agriculture organizations who had asked leadership not to split the bill.
Peterson, who led the debate against the legislation, said he especially objected to a provision repealing a 1949 law that usually serves as incentive for lawmakers to pass a reauthorized farm bill every five years. Unless lawmakers pass a new bill, federal agriculture policy reverts to the 64-year-old “permanent law.” Without that threat hanging over the debate, Peterson said Congress may never have reason to pass a farm bill again. The provision was added to the revised bill on Wednesday night.
“If we do away with permanent law, and we make this bill permanent law, then yes this probably is the last farm bill,” Peterson said after the vote.
He blasted the process as well, and said he doesn’t think Republican leadership will allow the bill to go to a conference committee with the Senate. After the vote, which Democrats delayed for hours through procedural tactics, he couldn’t say whether he thought the bill would move forward or not.
“I’m getting tired of answering that question,” he said. “I, back home, told the press, I told them 12 times that I’m optimistic, and I’ve told them 15 times I’m pessimistic, so where does that get you?”
Peterson, a moderate Blue Dog Democrat who has a very close relationship with Lucas, said the farm bill fight has left him in a position that he’s rarely found himself in the past.
“You have now managed to make me a partisan,” he said of House Republicans during the debate. “That’s a darn hard thing to do, but you accomplished it.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry