Despite appeals from over 500 interested and informed parties, the Republican led US House of Representatives passed by a 216-208 vote a reduced version of their 2013 Farm Bill. All Democrats voted against this version as did 12 Republicans.
The rhetoric on the House floor was intense and as ugly as this writer has ever witnessed in either chamber of the United States Congress. One can view yelling and screaming legislatures in Greece, Italy, Russia or England including occasional fisticuffs. In the USA, we usually pride ourselves in civil discourse on even tense issues. The Republican leadership’s decision to strip out the Nutrition Title of the Farm Bill found the “tipping point” where usual civil dialogue ends and outrage begins.
This version of the Farm Bill now goes into a conference with the Senate passed version where decisions will have to be made as to how to merge the “complete” Senate version with the “partial” House version. Assuming this is accomplished, then we have to send the “conference report” back to each body for an “up or down” vote. It is usually not allowed for conferees to insert into a bill a failed amendment such as the Kind-Petri poison pill, so we are cautiously optimistic that we won’t see any major harm to crop insurance. The Senate version does include a “means test” and this will have to be ironed out eventually with a House version that does not include any such item.
My early education on the “legislative conference” process taught that conferees are generally free to include or not include parts of either version with which they are dealing. We can expect the Senate conferees to likely consider their version of the Nutrition Title and work with their House conferees to iron out other differences. It is really a crapshoot on how this all works out. There is a school of thought that the House will work on a Nutrition Bill for the stripped out Farm Bill title and send it over to conference on a different track. This would cause another clash on the House floor with a similar partisan vote the likely outcome.
Next steps are to appoint conferees from the House and the Senate. This usually includes the Committee Chairs, Stabenow (D. Michigan) and Lucas (R. Oklahoma) plus ranking members Cochran (R. Mississippi) and Peterson (D. Minnesota) plus others as designated by leadership. Both bodies would generally appoint Ag Committee Members interested and informed about various Farm Bill issues.
One interesting tweak in the House version was a rider to the previous amended House Farm Bill which ends reference to permanent law being the 1949 version. If adopted, then permanent law will become this 2013 version and there will be no future “milk cliff” issues to spur the “do nothing” Congress to actually do something.
Things need to happen quickly if we are to see anything before the 09-30-2013 expiration of the current Farm Bill extension. We will know they are serious when conferees are named and a time is set for an initial conference committee to meet. This sets up to be a difficult process to produce a conference report with any chance of passing the House.
Finally, having reviewed the back room actions which led to the drama on the House floor on Thursday, it is apparent that Chairman Lucas (R. Oklahoma) was firmly opposed to splitting the Farm Bill until early in the week, when he said it was time to think “outside the box”. This writer believes he was advised by Majority Leader Cantor (R. Virginia) splitting was the only way forward and “support it or else”.
We have a long history of bi-partisan support and inclusiveness in our Farm Bills. The current make up of a Democrat in the White House, a Democrat majority in the US Senate and a Republican majority in the US House of Representatives screams for a bi-partisan solution to this and every other major piece of legislation. Majority Leader Cantor seems to be listening to only the extreme of his party and has become the spokesman for various issues that appear to be going nowhere such as the 2013 Farm Bill. His actions on behalf of his members remind me of certain verses of a 1960’s tune written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney:
He’s a real nowhere man,
Living in his nowhere land,
Making all his nowhere plans,
He’s as blind as he can be,
Just sees what he wants to see,
Isn’t he a bit like you and me.