WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives is expected to pass a five-year farm bill on Wednesday after two years of delay and ongoing debate about its key provisions.
House leaders of both parties have signaled their support for the 949-page bill, which governs a huge swath of agricultural policy as well as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.
“In this climate, that’s a good sign,” said Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat who represents Minnesota’s rural First Congressional District. “There will be fewer defections from the Republican side than people think and fewer from the Democratic side.”
The Senate is expected to approve the bill soon after the House. So an approved bill could be in place as soon as late Wednesday or Thursday, depending on procedural steps in both chambers.
But in an often bitterly divided Congress, nothing is guaranteed.
The House voted down a different farm bill in July when Tea Party Republicans and hard-line progressives teamed up unexpectedly to tank a compromise measure that would have cut food stamps by $20 billion over five years. The right wing thought the cuts were too little; the left thought they were too much.
The $8.6 billion in food stamp cuts now on the table are dramatically less than what the House rejected over the summer, but they are double what the Senate proposed in a farm bill it passed last year.
Also up for consideration is a plan to replace $40 billion in crop subsidies with less expensive crop insurance and price protection programs. The controversial sugar price subsidy program considered vital to Minnesota’s sugar beet industry remains intact, and nothing was added to the bill to overturn controversial regulatory requirements that force meatpackers and processors to tell consumers where the animals used in their products were born, raised and slaughtered.
‘Ready to quit fighting’
Despite continued areas of disagreement, Walz, a member of the House Agriculture Committee and the House-Senate conference committee that carved out the current farm bill, believes a spirit of compromise will prevail this time.
Americans, he said, have run out of patience with a “my way or the highway” approach to governing.
Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee and one of leaders of the conference committee, also believes the House will pass the bill.
The positive feedback the House got for passing a bipartisan budget deal recently helped, Peterson said.
“The other thing helping is that people just want to get this over with,” he added. “People are ready to quit fighting.”
The process has been so grueling and frustrating that Peterson, the senior member of the Minnesota delegation, said he is considering retiring. “It’s just been an unrelenting nightmare,” he said.
Peterson said he has made no decision about leaving office and felt the same exhaustion after leading the battle to pass a farm bill in 2008.
He said he will take a few weeks to see whether things calm down and his spirits brighten.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, an Agriculture Committee member who also served on the farm bill conference committee, was upbeat. The bill that emerged has debt reduction, as well as conservation measures, crop protection, research funding and workable food stamp cuts, she said. It serves a broad enough cross-section of interests that it is difficult to see a way for it to fail, she said.
If the farm bill passes the House, Klobuchar said, “it’s as good as done” in the Senate, which has passed similar legislation twice.
Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota endorsed the conference committee bill Tuesday and called for its quick passage.
Rep. Betty McCollum, one of the House’s more liberal Democrats, announced plans to vote for the farm bill midafternoon on Tuesday.
“This bill represents a bipartisan compromise at a time when Congress rarely compromises,” McCollum said in a statement.
Other members of the delegation did not respond to a request for comment on how they intended to vote.
The $8.6 billion in food stamp cuts will not affect Minnesota. All of the savings come from closing a loophole in which people could qualify for benefits if they received money from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Minnesota does not use the program to place residents on food stamps.