As I write this missive, Congress is in the midst of its Passover/Easter break (they call it a “work session”). Whatever term they wish to use, we’ve just seen the passage of the omnibus appropriations bill.
Many Washington-based pundits are saying with passage of this enormous budget bill, the GOP-controlled Congress all but wrapped up its legislating for the year.
Obviously, those pundits haven’t been to Farm Country lately.
For the rest of us who care for crops and beast, as well as those who feed a hungry nation and world, there’s supposed to be another piece of legislation.
The 2018 farm bill is supposed to be rolling out in markup form this month in both the House and Senate agriculture committees.
While it looks like the Senate side, led by Chairman Pat Roberts, R-KS, and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, are on their way to another bipartisan markup with limited arguments, the House resembles a Three Stooges pie fight, with Republicans and Democrats hurling messy smack at each other instead of getting any work done.
Let’s start with the Senate. Roberts has already said the Upper Chamber will offer only limited changes to current legislation—meaning virtually no changes to the often-contentious Nutrition title of the Roberts-Stabenow bill. By having few changes and just a few amendments made in markup, the two warhorses of previous farm bills can present a unified front to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, that, like five years ago, they’ll only need a couple of days from the Senate calendar to conduct floor debate.
That floor debate time is precious—anywhere from 60 to 65 legislative days, depending on the chamber—since incumbents will want to beat a retreat from Washington to get home by mid-to-late October to campaign, as usual, against Washington when they run for re-election.
It’s in the House where the clock is running and members are letting the clock tick, because they already can’t find common ground on the Nutrition title, particularly on changes on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Learning about this made me pull up Harry James and Helen Forrest on my smartphone to listen to “I’ve Heard That Song Before.”
And while former Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK, was far more conciliatory toward Democrats who sought more funding in the current farm bill while fighting the expectations of the House Freedom Caucus, who wanted to separate the Nutrition title from the rest of the farm bill, current Chairman Mike Conaway, R-TX, doesn’t seem as willing to offer an olive branch.
Especially after all 19 Democrats on the ag committee sent a letter to Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-MN. While expressing trust in Peterson’s leadership and expertise on the farm bill’s varied provisions, the 19 said they have grown concerned about the nutrition policies being pushed by the Majority. The letter asked Peterson to abstain from further negotiations until Conaway agrees to share the legislative text and its detailed impact with members of the committee.
In response, Peterson said in a statement, “The Democratic members of the Agriculture Committee are unanimous in their opposition to the extreme, partisan policies being advocated by the Majority. This opposition will not change.”
That caused Conaway to respond in a speech March 24 before the Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association meeting in Fort Worth. It was recorded by Ron Hays of the Oklahoma Farm Report and transcribed by Keith Good of the University of Illinois’s Farm Policy News Website.
“I spent most of March thinking we were negotiating in good faith and then last week or the week before last his team sent him a letter saying—and I’ve never seen this happen before—but every Democrat on the House Ag Committee sent him a letter saying we don’t trust you to negotiate nutrition, so get off the field. And then last week he sent out a press release that said the House Democrats on the Agriculture Committee are no longer interested in working on the farm bill. They went to the sideline,” Conaway said.
“Well, OK. I’m disappointed. Hurt, quite frankly, that they weren’t willing to be a part of the solution. But that does not mean we’re stopping. We’re going to go forward. I have to find 218 votes on the floor. Could be Republican votes, could be Democrat votes, it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care. I got to find 217 other votes for my farm bill. The SNAP is the big issue.”
Peterson, meanwhile, retorted on the Adams on Agriculture radio program March 26. Again, the transcript courtesy Keith Good.
“Having talked to the leadership of the Freedom Caucus, who says even with what is being proposed being in the bill they’re still not going to be in favor of it. That’s about, according to them, about 30 of them,” Peterson said. “And I’ve talked to a number of moderates, and I think there’s 15 to 20 moderates that won’t vote (with) Republicans and won’t vote for this bill if the SNAP stuff is in there as it currently is. So if that’s true, that’s 50 people, and I don’t know how you pass a bill.”
In reading these two House leaders, it looks like we’re already at stalemate and it’s only the first week in April.
The clock, meanwhile, continues to tick.
Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.