Congress exits Washington minus farm bill passage
By Larry Dreiling
Finger pointing replaced voting for a new farm bill Sept. 21 as Congress recessed for a six-week election break.
While Senators had completed their share of labor to bring a farm bill to passage back on June 21, the House version of the bill stalled amid accusations by some House members they had the votes to pass the measure and send it to a conference committee.
Those assertions, made by Republicans and Democrats, directly contradict recent claims by GOP leaders, according to a Sept. 22 online story in the Washington publication The Hill. Prior to the recess, Republican leaders said the reason why they weren't moving the five-year bill was because it lacked the votes.
The Hill reported a group of GOP and Democratic lawmakers from agriculture districts launched an eleventh-hour whip count earlier in the week aimed at proving Republican leaders wrong. They polled their House colleagues with a simple question: Would you vote for the farm bill that passed the Agriculture Committee?
The panel approved its measure, 35 to 11, in July.
Many legislators, including House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson of Minnesota, were livid that leaders had not conducted an official whip effort on the five-year farm bill.
"Nobody has ever whipped the bill. (GOP leaders) keep saying that there's not enough votes so I want to know where we're at," Peterson said in an interview with The Hill Sept. 21.
The bipartisan vote-counting operation that day continued throughout a nearly two-hour vote series, the best time for whipping to occur as the entire body is gathered in the chamber.
As lawmakers left the Capitol, Arkansas freshman GOP Rep. Rick Crawford was quoted as saying there are at least 218 votes in favor of passage.
"I feel like (Republicans) have anywhere from 125 to 150 on our side; and anywhere from 85 to 115 on the (Democratic) side," Crawford told The Hill.
One GOP lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak freely on the matter, said that Peterson counted at least 100 Democrats who would support the legislation..
"(GOP leadership) thought they had 20 (votes)," the member said. "(They) were also thinking that (House Minority Leader Nancy) Pelosi (D-CA) and (House Minority Whip Steny) Hoyer (D-MD) were whipping against it. They weren't whipping against it."
The bill has divided each party. Liberals take issue with the measure's cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly called food stamps. Conservatives say that the cuts are not deep enough, citing its $900-billion price tag.
GOP leadership's inaction on floor consideration of the measure has surprised some lawmakers who have cited House Speaker John Boehner's promise to "let the House work its will."
But others told The Hill that GOP leaders did try to sound out members and came away with the feedback that it would be a bad political vote for many Republicans. Indeed, GOP lawmakers would attract criticism either way they vote on the bill. If they voted yes, groups such as the Club for Growth would call them out. If they voted no, farm groups would express their dissatisfaction.
Boehner then announced that the House would consider the farm bill following the November elections.
That has pleased some farm bill supporters, who were concerned that leaders would revamp the legislation in the lame-duck session.
"When we get back after the election we will consult with our members and develop a pathway forward; it's too early to determine right now, what kind of mood members might be in and what kind of opinions they are going to have," Boehner said.
Meanwhile, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma told the Washington newspaper Politico that he has yet to receive an explicit promise from Boehner that his bill will be called up in the lame-duck session.
While it remains to be seen if the full House will change aspects of the Agriculture Committee's bill, lawmakers supportive of the measure say their whip count will help their argument that no alterations are necessary.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Ave., President Barack Obama faulted Congress for leaving town with not only the farm bill on its plate, but several other pieces of unfinished business including measures to help veterans and homeowners left undone.
Obama accused lawmakers in his weekend radio and Internet address Sept. 22 of being "more worried about their jobs and their paychecks" than their constituents.
He says lawmakers missed opportunities to help the economy and wants them to come back in November to finish work on a not only the farm bill, but a veterans' job plan, and helping homeowners refinance.
"Right now, if Congress had gotten its act together, we would have a farm bill to help farmers and ranchers respond to natural disasters like the drought we had this summer," Obama said. "And we'd have made necessary reforms to give our rural communities some long-term certainty. But so far, Republicans in Congress have dragged their feet. And now they're gone."
Meanwhile, one major farm group leader stated his belief there is "no clear path for how (a farm bill) will get passed in the near future."
Erik Younggren, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers and a wheat and sugar beet farmer from Hallock, Minn., said in a statement: "Congress has now left Washington with no new farm bill passed and no clear path for how one will get passed in the near future.
"As a farmer who grew up on the land I still farm, and as the leader of a national organization made up of men and women whose families are dedicated to their farm businesses, this development is both surreal and deeply unsettling.
"Members of Congress are now fanning out across our nation to ask for our support in their efforts to get their jobs back. Regardless of party or position, we strongly encourage farmers to ask their legislators for an explanation of why they have failed to pass this fundamental legislation despite ample time and the worst drought conditions in our lifetimes."
"We thank our agriculture leaders--Chairwoman (Debbie) Stabenow (of Michigan), Ranking Member (Pat) Roberts (of Kansas), Chairman Lucas and Ranking Member Peterson--and many other faithful Members who have worked hard to push the farm bill forward.
"We can only hope that House leaders have the will to bring forward the five-year reauthorization of the farm bill as the first item of business when they return in November and get done what should have been done long ago."
The current farm bill expires Sept. 30 but the lapse won't have much practical effect in the near term. The final date for passage is seen as Dec. 31, when the so-called "fiscal cliff"--combining the expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts and more than $100 billion in across-the-board spending cuts--is set to occur because of last year's deficit "super committee" inability to strike a deal.
Andrew Taylor of The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.