Lawmakers Need to Show Strong Leadership to Move Forward With Farm Bill

National Journal

The Senate is scheduled to vote on final passage of the farm bill late Monday after a cloture vote last Thursday that could be a model for the leadership needed the rest of the year to conclude the messy process of passing a new agriculture package.

After weeks of debate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., apparently got sick of the squabbling and scheduled a cloture vote. A total of 77 senators—53 Democrats and 22 Republicans—voted to end debate, even though more than 200 amendments were still pending. Reid had reason to move on: He wants the Senate to start and finish floor debate on the immigration-reform bill before the Fourth of July recess.

During the time the farm bill was on the floor, senators spent endless hours debating amendments that they had already voted on last year, but they also interrupted debate to talk about how unhappy they were with the way the Senate is managed, why the Senate should or should not reach a budget agreement with the House, and what should be the general nature of government.

The farm bill that the Senate will consider is almost the same as the bill the Senate passed by a wide majority last year. The big difference is that this year’s bill contains a target-price-based commodity-assistance program that Southern rice and peanut growers wanted. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who replaced Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., as ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and other Southern senators insisted on its inclusion. Roberts considers target prices an outmoded, flawed policy that will lead farmers to plant with an eye toward getting government payments rather than reaping the highest market price, and he continues to object loudly to this proposal. Last year, some Southern senators did not vote for the bill, and this year it’s possible that a few Midwestern senators who normally support farm bills will vote against it. But they won’t be enough to cause it to fail.

If Reid concluded that the farm and food folks had had enough time to play on the Senate floor, he was right. As Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D- Mich., noted, she included 38 amendments that the Senate passed during last year’s debate. The Senate did add another 14 amendments this year, including one sponsored by Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that would reduce crop-insurance premium subsidies for farmers who earn $750,000 or more. Stabenow and farm and conservation groups had hoped that the inclusion of a measure tying crop-insurance subsidies to conservation compliance would negate the popularity of an income test. They said that if the richest farmers with the biggest acreages did not get full subsidies, they might drop their crop insurance and be vulnerable to weather and market problems and not subject to conservation compliance. But the Durbin-Coburn measure proved an irresistible way for senators to prove they were not soft on subsidies to big farmers, and the amendment was approved, as it was last year.

And just like last year, the Senate rejected an amendment to change the sugar program as well as amendments to make any more cuts to food stamps than the $4 billion over 10 years that Stabenow had included. The Senate also rejected, as it did last year, a measure sponsored by Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York to eliminate the cut.

The need for strong leadership will be even greater in the House.

That cantankerous body did not take up the farm bill last year, so the argument that members have already voted on the farm bill will not work. But the major issues that supposedly stopped the House leadership from bringing the bill to the floor have been known for two years: whether the House will consider the Agriculture Committee’s $20.5 billion cut to food stamps over 10 years too much or too little; whether a majority will go along with a proposal for a dairy program written by Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and beloved by dairy farmers, or prefer an alternative sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and favored by dairy processors; and finally, whether the full House will go along with the Agriculture Committee’s generosity toward crop insurance or want to restrict subsidies and impose conservation compliance, as the Senate has done.

With the farm bill expected to come to the House floor the week of June 17, House leaders must decide whether to have an open rule or limit amendments. If the bill passes on the House floor, strong leadership from both the Senate and the House will be needed to complete a conference report and send a bill to President Obama before the current extension of the farm bill expires Sept. 30. The decision of more than three-quarters of the Senate to end debate on the farm bill might signal that there is a point at which all legislators will beg for someone to whip them into line.

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

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