With the election season about over, many are already starting look ahead to the lame duck session of Congress to get a lot of unfinished business done by the end of the year. Funding bills and appropriation bills that aren’t dealt with by December 31 will face massive spending cuts if they are dealt with after the first of the new year. One of those bills is the Farm, Food and Jobs Act that has already passed the full Senate and the House Agriculture Committee. That all happened earlier this summer which almost seems like ancient history.
Until now indications have been that House leadership was still going to be reluctant to bring the House committee bill to the floor because House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio didn’t feel he had enough votes to pass it on his side of the aisle. Observers of the process say there are enough votes to pass it but not all those votes will come from Republicans.
Last week, however, the dynamics of the farm bill process may have changed. House Majority Leader, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, leader of the right wing Tea Party movement in the House and who many feel is the real Speaker of the House, said he is committed to holding a discussion and vote on the farm bill on the House floor after the November elections. Cantor made his remarks while campaigning for a fellow Republican House member in Idaho.
One of the big questions concerning that floor discussion is going to be the limitations placed on the debate and the ability of the members to offer amendments to the bill that came out of that House Agriculture Committee. Tea Party members are going to want to cut more from farm, food and nutrition and conservation programs than the committee agreed to in its bill. Led by Congressman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the committee bill passed on a bipartisan vote and calls for $34 billion in cuts and savings in the next farm bill. The Senate bill calls for $23 billion in savings and cuts but the Tea Party wants to make cuts in the range of $184 billion, much of that to food and nutrition programs but with considerable cuts to farm programs like direct payments and in crop insurance subsidies. On the other side of the aisle, liberal Democrats in the House think the cuts made by the Senate bill as well as the House Ag Committee are too drastic so the battle lines appear to be drawn and that is why the rules of the debate will be very important to any House floor action.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack was in Eau Claire last week at Democratic party Headquarters to kick off a Rural Leaders for Obama effort and told us he is concerned about the lack of progress on a new farm bill. He told us he was “hopeful, but concerned because the lame duck session in the House has so many other issues to deal with and I’m deeply concerned the reason we don’t have a new farm bill is because House leadership wants to cut farm programs much more deeply than either the Senate of the House bills call for.”
He cited the $184 billion in cuts House Republicans are looking at as a “severe blow to the farm safety net.” Cuts that large would take $50 billion from farm programs and $134 billion from food and nutrition programs by cutting benefits and eliminating people from the food stamp rolls. But he said people misunderstand who’s getting that food aid. He explained that “only 8% of SNAP (food stamp program) participants are on welfare as most of the aid goes to senior citizens, people with disabilities, children and people who work but don’t make enough money to cover their normal family living expenses.”
During his brief stop in Eau Claire, Secretary Vilsack said the real scary part is if Congress doesn’t get a new bill done by the first of the year. Then, he said, “what do livestock and dairy producers, specialty crop farmers, export programs, CRP contracts and Rural Development programs do to keep going?” Both Vilsack and Third District Representative Ron Kind called the situation in Congress dysfunctional and are hoping House leaders will bring the farm bill to the floor yet this year and allow for a bipartisan bill to pass so farmers have some certainty in how to proceed with their operations for next year.
So far, we have not seen any response from Speaker Boehner’s office on Representative Cantor’s remarks regarding the upcoming lame duck session and the discussion of the farm bill on the House floor.