Congress Poised to Move on Farm Bill

National Journal

The atmosphere on Capitol Hill for the farm bill suddenly seems to be full speed ahead.

The Senate Agriculture Committee will mark up its bill on Tuesday, and the House Agriculture Committee will follow suit on Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he would like to finish the bill on the floor in May. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who held up the bill last year—probably in hopes of electing a Republican-controlled Senate and a Republican president—suddenly declared this month that he wants to bring the bill to the House floor this summer. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., has suggested that the leadership should bring it up in June.

Why, after Congress missed the deadline to pass the bill last year and had to extend the 2008 bill for another year, and after negotiations have been going on behind the scenes for more than four months, is the bill finally moving?  And could the bills still stall?

The reason the bills are moving seems to be that each chamber has gotten tired of the farm bill hanging on and has something more interesting to move on to. Reid has told the Senate that he wants the farm bill passed in May because he wants to devote June to immigration reform. Since exit polls showed that President Obama’s election percentage in rural America went from 50 percent in 2008 to 41 percent in 2012, while Hispanic voters have become the new hope of the Democratic Party, it seems that Reid has a logical reason to get the farm bill done quickly and move on to something that interests more Democratic voters. Agricultural employers will encourage this movement, too, since they are promoting provisions for immigrant farm workers and meat-company employees that are included in the immigration-reform bill.

House Republicans want to move on to the periodic reauthorization of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and the House Agriculture Committee has to do it. Most of the futures industry today is financial, but the commission, which regulates the industry, falls under the jurisdiction of the Agriculture committees because the exchanges that engage in financial futures started out trading in agricultural commodities and minerals.

The House and Senate Agriculture committees wrote the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which so deregulated the futures industry that it played a major role in the 2008 financial crisis. Those committees also wrote Title VII of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which gave the CFTC new regulatory powers and for the first time regulated the high-earning swaps industry. The financial-services industry hates the Dodd-Frank Act and is chomping at the bit to restrict the CFTC’s ability to finalize some of the regulations the agency has proposed.

It did not seem to be a coincidence that last Thursday, when Lucas scheduled the House panel’s farm-bill markup for Wednesday, he also announced that the committee will hold the first of a series of CFTC reauthorization hearings on May 21.

Lucas could barely contain his enthusiasm in an e-mail he sent out. “The committee will kick off its series of CFTC reauthorization hearings with a broad range of market participants to comment on the current state of the marketplace,” Lucas wrote. “Extremely pressing issues face the futures and swaps markets, and the committee will hold several hearings to examine customer protections, review the commission’s operations, and evaluate how regulations are impacting end-users and the agricultural community.”

The Republicans believe, perhaps accurately, that Americans have forgotten that the lack of regulation of futures and swaps was key to the 2008 crisis—or that at least the public will not follow the complicated issues of regulating or deregulating futures, derivatives, and swaps.

Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee seem to love to compete to cut food stamps. Lucas has called for a $20 billion cut over 10 years in the farm bill, while other proposals would cut as much as $36 billion. But it’s really more fun to sit around and help out the well-dressed financial-services executives, especially when they bring along those generous campaign contribution checks.

Farm lobbyists have been frustrated in their inability to get Congress moving on the farm bill, but between immigration and CFTC reauthorization, Congress may have found its own motivation to act.

There are still plenty of big fights ahead over food stamps, dairy, sugar, crop-support programs, and crop insurance, as well as the question of whether farmers should have to follow federal conservation rules to get premium subsidies.

And, as Lucas put it in a recent interview, “Conference may be quite an experience.”

The bill could still stall, but there is a sense of optimism and compromise in the air on Capitol Hill, along with the desire to move.

“This time I know the lay of the land in the committee,” Lucas said. “I’ve had a year to work with leadership, a year to bring them along in understanding.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., wants no cut to food stamps, but she said in an interview that she hopes to vote for a final bill even if there is a small cut to food stamps, as there was in the Senate bill she voted for last year.

Noting that current dairy policy is not working, Gillibrand said, there is “a need to refine agricultural policy in this country.”

Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive director of The Hagstrom Report, which may be found at

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