WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota thinks his congressional colleagues may be embarrassed enough by the recent debt ceiling showdown to actually cooperate in farm bill negotiations that start this week.
Craig Cox, a vice president for the Environmental Working Group, is not so sure.
The conference committee meetings that kick off Wednesday will be the first major opportunity for a polarized House and Senate to work together since a last-minute deal to reopen the government and raise the country’s borrowing limit before it defaulted on its loan payments.
“What we saw in the last month was a lot of dysfunction and something that was really ugly and unnecessary and, frankly, reckless.” Franken said. “I think there’s some eagerness of most people in both houses to do our jobs.”
But the Senate and House versions of five-year farm bills that the conference committee must marry still reflect deep divisions between the parties and the chambers. This is especially true of outlays for the supplemental nutrition program, popularly known as food stamps.
The bipartisan Senate bill cuts $4 billion from food stamps over the next five years. The Republican-passed House bill, which had virtually no Democratic support, cuts $40 billion.
Cox believes the enormous food stamp gap and differences in dairy and conservation policies do not bode well for passage of a new stand-alone farm bill by Dec. 31.
“Odds are there will not be a farm bill at the end of the year,” Cox said. “I think some parts of the farm bill will get put into the budget bill that gets passed.”
Ira Shapiro, a former senior staffer in the Senate, government policy expert and author of “The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis,” said that a history of bipartisanship puts significant pressure on conferees to find common ground on a farm bill.
“It is a striking example of congressional failure that they haven’t agreed to one,” Shapiro said.
Polls showed Americans blaming House Republicans most for the shutdown/debt ceiling crisis. That, Shapiro added, provides even more incentive to pass a farm bill.
“I’d like to believe that some of the Republicans will absorb the lesson of the recent debacle,” he said. “The Republican Party is suffering an enormous loss of support around the country.”
Minnesota’s three appointees on the conference committee — Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Reps. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz, all Democrats — remain optimistic.
“I’m hopeful of getting a bill by year’s end,” said Peterson, the ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Peterson’s optimism stems from the fact that most of the conference committee members serve on ag committees in both chambers and that those committees have traditionally worked together.
But the House voted down the bipartisan farm bill produced by its ag committee to pass separate bills for farm programs and food stamps. Peterson said the House leadership’s appointment of Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., to the conference committee was ominous because Southerland helped in that separation.
“He can hold the whole thing up,” Peterson said.
Asked about the conference committee’s chances, Klobuchar and Walz each issued statements expressing hope that both chambers would seize the chance to do what is in the nation’s best interest.
“After the reckless government shutdown that did great damage to our economy and the American people’s faith in democracy, the farm bill presents a fantastic opportunity to cut through the partisan noise in Washington and accomplish something big, not just for rural America, but for the entire country,” Walz said.
Klobuchar signaled that she is not inclined to bend much on food stamp reductions.
“The cuts in the House-passed nutrition bill go too far,” she said. “They would hurt the most vulnerable across the country and also jeopardize the passage of the farm bill.”
The other big sticking point is a dairy program that pays dairy farmers to limit production when market prices dip. The Senate bill includes the dairy program. The House bill does not.
Peterson, who strongly backs supply management, says the program’s fate could be determined by a single vote in the conference committee.
What may be shaping up is another painful episode in which the Senate and House cannot agree on the same bill even if the conference committee can.
In that case, the existing farm bill will need to be extended to keep from reverting to 1949 laws that could play havoc with the agriculture market, especially milk prices. But extension also leaves in place unpopular programs such as direct government payments to farmers to subsidize their crops.
Or this could go down like the shutdown/debt ceiling fight, in which House Republican leaders had to rely on the support of more Democrats than Republicans to reopen the government and protect the country’s credit rating.
An unwillingness by House GOP hard-liners to give in substantially on food stamp cuts might force House leaders to depend on Democrats to pass a farm bill, Shapiro predicted.
“If the House won’t move closer to the mainstream,” he said, “it will be forced into these kinds of choices.”