Next Stops for Farm Bill: Senate and House Floors

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Jerry Hagstrom
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The House Agriculture Committee prides itself on bipartisanship, but when the panel met Wednesday to consider a new farm bill, the deep cultural divides between its Republican majority and Democratic minority members were in full relief.

Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., are centrists who are managing, as they did last year, to get the committee to approve a bill. A markup of the bill was nearing completion Wednesday evening with panel approval virtually assured.

Lucas has said the House leadership has told him the bill will come up on the floor in June. That would follow Senate consideration of the legislation, which is expected to begin Monday. Senate and House leaders want to finish a conference before Sept. 30, when the current extension of the 2008 farm bill is scheduled to expire.

Big fights between urban liberals and tea-party-minded conservatives are expected on the House floor, particularly over the future size of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP or food stamps.

But it is hard to imagine that those fights will be more colorful than the rhetoric at Wednesday’s committee markup. The intensity of that debate is remarkable because the food-stamp program was created in the 1960s with two purposes: to feed the hungry, but also to attract votes for the farm program as the population changed and the number of members representing cities and suburbs grew and the clout of rural America dwindled.

For several decades, Agriculture Committee members in both parties seemed to understand that deal. But since the 2010 election, the panel’s membership has consisted of very different types of people, who seem to enjoy being hostile to each other. White, rural Republicans from the interior of the country join the committee to work on crop and livestock programs. The Democrats don’t elect many members from rural areas now, so their members are more likely to come from areas where agriculture interests are narrow and the biggest issue is food stamps.

During the markup, the crop section of the commodity title—the core of the farm program—was barely discussed. The underlying bill contains a program that dairy farmers like but processors detest. There was a vote on an alternative proposal from Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and David Scott, D-Ga., but Lucas and Peterson supported the farmers’ proposal, so the alternative lost. Goodlatte brought up an amendment to change the sugar program, but said he would wait until the bill gets to the House floor to ask for a vote.

When it came time to talk about nutrition, Republicans and Democrats couldn’t wait to show how differently they view the world. The bill would cut $20.5 billion from an estimate of about $760 billion over 10 years by making it more difficult for people to qualify for food stamps. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a longtime antihunger advocate, offered an amendment to eliminate the cut. Lucas and Peterson have backed the cut, which is higher than the $16.5 billion reduction in last year’s bill, as a way to attract votes. McGovern said it was unconscionable for a country this rich to not provide food for the hungry. But his comments were conventional compared with others.

Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., said he wanted to make sure lottery winners and illegal immigrants “cannot steal” from the truly needy. That prompted Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, to suggest that “it will be a long day” and members should “not start calling the American public thieves and criminals.” Lucas signaled he agreed with Fudge.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said he disagrees with the Agriculture Department’s view that food stamps are “an economic stimulator.” USDA, he said, “wants to expand the dependency class.”

But that was only the beginning. Scott said he would fight the food-stamp cuts in the committee, on the floor, and in conference as he sought “justice.”

Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., who once served as a Jesuit novitiate in an orphanage in the war-torn jungles of El Salvador, said he opposed the cuts, quoting the Book of Matthew: “When I was hungry you gave me food. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Republican Reps. Michael Conaway of Texas, Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, and Doug LaMalfa of California all said they were observant Christians who supported the cuts because the government should focus on creating jobs rather than providing benefits. The members all seemed sincere in their divergent views of the world—but for some lobbyists, the religion was too much. “What happened to the separation of church and state?” one farm lobbyist e-mailed.

With the House Agriculture Committee’s actions Wednesday, “farmers and eaters both need divine intervention,” said Lorette Picciano and Rudy Arredondo of the Rural Coalition, which lobbies for small and minority farmers.

The committee rejected McGovern’s amendment to strike the food-stamp cut by a vote of 27-17, but it also rejected by voice vote an amendment by Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, to cut the program by an even bigger amount.