House re-couples, staggers "farm bill" as the clock winds down

Not unpredictably, it looks like the mid-summer drama that was the House’s legislative divorce of the traditional omnibus “farm bill” into its two parent issues of food stamps and ‘agricultural’ policy was all for naught, at least for this year, in terms of succeeding in forever separating the two policies from their usual convoluted and non-transparent political momentum. The current farm bill also expires tonight, but the focus on Capitol Hill is obviously the much more urgent possibility of/fallout from a looming government shutdown and the continuing resolution Congress needs to pass by midnight in order to prevent such an eventuality. That means that the small maneuver of re-coupling the separated bills back into one big “farm bill” that the House pulled on Saturday is probably the last piece of action the issue will see for at least a few days:


The House took a step today toward a conference on the farm bill by approving legislation (H. Res. 361) that couples its nutrition bill with its farm bill.

The House voted 226-191 to approve the resolution that also would allow for same-day consideration of stop-gap legislation to avoid a federal government shutdown.

The move combines the House-passed “farm bill-only” farm bill (H.R. 2642) with its nutrition bill (H.R. 3102), which seeks to cut about $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Presumably this clears House leadership to appoint conferees in order to work out a deal with the Senate, which approved its farm bill (S. 954) in June.

The entire point of the separation exercise was to break up the usual you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours, something-for-everyone setup that safely ensured its passage and instead force lawmakers to more closely and honestly scrutinize the merits of the legislation (although I do think Republicans ceded some of their moral authority on that one when they gave the deserving scrutiny to food stamps while leaving the wasteful and pork-tossing travesty that is ‘agricultural’ policy essentially unchanged), but rather adroitly, the House Republicans did at least include a measure in the bills’ reunification that could force the difficult conversations within the next few years. Daren Bakst explains at Heritage:

While the House of Representatives voted today to rejoin its food stamp bill with its agriculture-only farm bill, it took a critical step to ensure that separation of the farm bill becomes the norm in the future: It established staggered terms for these programs. Food stamps would be authorized for three years and agriculture programs for five years.

In order to make it far less likely that the programs will be put back together again, food stamps and farm programs must have different reauthorization schedules, with at least a two-year time difference. A one-year difference could easily result in both programs being on the same reauthorization schedule again.

The House, to its credit, took this important procedural step — a prerequisite for reform.


If the GOP pushes for the change in conference with the Senate, it could be an effective way to finally sort out the issue once and for all, but it doesn’t sound likely to happen this time around — and indeed, word on the street is that lawmakers might want to try and punt on the issue by merely extending the current legislation for another year and dealing with it later:

A stopgap extension of current law runs out on Monday. Negotiators from the House of Representatives and the Senate may take up the bill in the next week or two.

Traditionally, this group reconciles disagreements and brings a compromise bill to a final vote. But analysts say the standoffs on the budget and debt limit are likely to delay consideration of the farm bill, as well as make the bill a target for cuts when budget savings are needed.

Given the deep divisions between the Republican-controlled House and the Senate, where Democrats are in the majority, negotiators may arrive at the table with irreconcilable ideas of what to put into a final version of the bill.

In the end, Congress could fast-track an alternative – such as an extension of the current law for a second straight year – if the farm bill goes off the rails or never builds enough steam to move ahead.

Dealing with it later by avoiding a real long-term bill and instead passing another stopgap extension, however, would mean dealing with the politically sensitive issue just before the 2014 midterms, which I doubt Republicans want to get into around that time. We shall see…


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