Farm Bill Moves on After Livestock Interests Score Wins

July 12, 2012 – CQ Roll Call
by Philip Brasher, CQ Roll Call Staff

It took them until after midnight to do it, but House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas and ranking Democrat Collin Peterson shepherded their farm bill through committee with its key provisions untouched.

Lucas and Peterson fought off efforts from both the right and left to expand or eliminate the cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that the bill would make. Dairy and sugar policies targeted by the food industry because of their impact on prices survived unscathed. And no restrictions were added to the bill’s crop insurance or commodity subsidies. Committee members who wanted to tighten payment limits and eligibility rules for commodity subsidies and to restrict the use of crop insurance on native prairie that’s broken for crops withdrew both proposals in the face of strong opposition on the panel.

Lucas: We Beat Expectations. The way forward for the bill (HR 6083) is still unclear. House Republican leaders haven’t said whether they will bring the bill up on the floor or, as an alternative, allow Lucas and Peterson take it directly to a conference committee with the Senate. But getting the bill out of committee virtually intact and on a strong bipartisan vote, 35-11, puts Lucas and Peterson in a strong negotiating position with the Senate, especially if they can avoid amendments on the House floor. The bill as drafted, and now approved by the committee, is shaped more to the liking of Southern growers and large-scale producers than the Senate bill, which is fashioned more to the tastes of the Midwest’s corn and soybean growers. “We beat the expectations of a good many people in this town today. Now we’ll see what the next step is,” Lucas said after the final vote.

Peterson is calling on House GOP leaders to bring the bill to the floor before the August recess. “I don’t know what the excuse would be to not put us on the floor,” he said. That message was echoed this morning in a statement from Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow: Failing to pass a bill this year “will not only hurt our economy, it will also mean a lost opportunity to enact major reforms in farm policy and substantial spending cuts,” she said.

Committee Slaps State Food Standards. In the final hours of the debate, the committee did manage to throw in some red-meat issues that will make the bill popular with livestock interests, but the measures could complicate negotiations with the Senate.

With Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, looking on from the back of the committee room, the panel adopted by voice vote a sweeping amendment that would bar states from imposing animal-welfare standards or other production rules that would apply to eggs, meat and other agricultural products brought in from other states. The amendment is aimed at preventing farms from having to comply with measures such as a California initiative that requires farms to provide more space to hens, hogs and other livestock.

Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., pleaded with the committee not to adopt the measure, sponsored by Steve King, R-Iowa, saying that farmers in California would be put at financial risk if farmers in other states don’t have to meet the same standards they do for foods sold in California. But the amendment’s supporters argued that the point was to stop states such as California from setting such standards in the first place. “You can’t regulate interstate commerce by passing laws like you did in California to regulate egg production,” said Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. The issue seemed to catch Pacelle by surprise. When he read the amendment’s language, he muttered, “Amazing.” He was attending the markup to watch the committee consider another amendment, which also was adopted, to prosecute spectators at animal fights.

Never mentioned in the debate over state farm standards was a bill that’s been proposed by panel member Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., to impose national standards for caging hens. The measure, which was requested by the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society in the wake of the California initiative and moves by other states, had no chance being added to the farm bill in committee. Schrader is expected to offer it on the House floor, according to Pacelle. But Wednesday night’s debate made clear that the measure faces furious opposition on the floor from House Agriculture members. Senate leaders refused to allow a vote on a similar measure.

Meatpackers Scored a Couple of Key Victories. Another amendment that passed Wednesday night would repeal provisions in the 2008 farm bill authorizing USDA to develop regulations giving farmers more marketing clout with meat processors. The amendment also would kill rules USDA issued in December 2011 to protect poultry growers and bars the department from issuing any additional rules. “You’re opening up a huge can of worms on this,” Peterson said, predicting the Democratic-controlled Senate would refuse to go along. Supporters of the amendment said USDA had gone too far.

Another measure that was adopted would pressure USDA to address a World Trade Organization ruling that U.S. country-of-origin labeling rules unfairly discourage imports of Canadian and Mexican livestock. Meatpackers never wanted the regulations in the first place, and pork producers worry that the ruling will lead to retaliation against U.S. exports. Peterson said the measure, which would require USDA to report on its plans for handling the ruling, was toothless, but nevertheless he argued in vain to keep it out of the bill.

Efforts to Alter Food Stamp Cuts, But Further Fights Loom. Arguments over the bill’s $16.1 billion in cuts to the nation’s largest food assistance program dominated much of the markup, according to CQ reporters. Lucas and Peterson made a calculated gamble in putting forward the cuts to SNAP, more than three times the amount in the Senate-passed farm bill (S 3240). Lucas said the figure represents the delicate balance needed to advance their measure through the House or to negotiate a final bill with the Senate Agriculture Committee.

SNAP advocate Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said he understands that Lucas and Peterson are trying to be strategic with their cuts to SNAP, but he added that their approach won’t win over many of his colleagues. “I know that they are trying to do. I want a farm bill, but enough is enough” on SNAP, he said. Five Democrats joined all of the panel’s Republicans to reject a McGovern amendment to restore the cuts, 31-15. The panel also defeated, 28-15, an amendment that would have substituted the SNAP reductions in the House bill with the smaller cuts in the Senate bill, estimated to be about $4.5 billion. The panel also rebuffed, 33-13, an attack from the right by Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., would have more than doubled the SNAP cuts, increasing the savings over 10 years to about $35 billion.

At the crux of the SNAP debate is whether the 2 million or 3 million people who would lose SNAP benefits under the proposed reductions merited enrollment in the first place. The bill would limit automatic eligibility to households receiving cash assistance from the Supplemental Security Income disability program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or state general assistance programs. Republicans tried to alleviate Democrats’ concerns by pointing out that the SNAP changes would not alter qualifications but would ensure that recipients meet income and asset criteria. “The legislation will not prevent families that qualify for assistance under SNAP law from receiving their benefits,” Lucas said.

Odds And Ends: Catfish Program Survives. The seafood industry was unable to persuade the committee to repeal a planned catfish inspection program at USDA. The committee voted 25-20 against killing the program, which is expected to discourage imports when implemented. A repeal provision did make it into the Senate bill so the issue is still alive.

Virtually any amendment that would have increased the overall cost of the bill was also rejected by the House panel, or simply withdrawn. Among those that never came to a vote was one that would have provided mandatory funding for the bill’s energy title. (The Senate does have funding for its energy title, so that issue is still alive.)

The key to getting into the House bill Wednesday was to save money, or not cost anything, and to not tinker with major policy issues. Among the amendments that did succeed:

SNAP Radio Ads: USDA would be barred for using radio advertising to recruit SNAP applicants. Peterson joined Republicans in expressing irritation at USDA spending money that way. Another successful amendment would allow SNAP benefits to be used for buying food from local farmers via Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions, or CSAs.
Young Farmer Aid: USDA would be authorized under an existing program to make farm loans of $35,000 or less to small-scale producers, beginning farmers or military veterans.
Water Projects: The committee rejected a proposal to spend $50 million on rural water and sewage projects to reduce a backlog for USDA aid. But the panel approved, by voice vote, an amendment encouraging USDA to provide loan guarantees for water and sewage projects that have private financing.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of American Farm Bureau Federation.

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