The farm bill fiasco


The Farm Bill is on the House floor right now and rumors are flying as to who’s voting for it and what’s been promised to them. I thought it might be useful to review a few important things while members continue to deliberate.

First, this bill doesn’t repeal permanent law, it replaces it with the terrible commodity title in the 2013 bill. There has been a lot of confusion on this point. Media reports from earlier in the week suggested that repealing permanent law was a concession to conservatives, but no one knew how such a change would be structured in the actual legislative text. The language dropped in the dead of night yesterday finally let us in on the secret.

The new language just doesn’t include what was Section 1109 from H.R. 1947, the combined farm bill that failed on the floor last month. That section dealt with the “period of effectiveness” for the bill, stating…

This subtitle shall be effective beginning with the 2014 crop year of each covered commodity through the 2018 crop year.

Pretty simple, right? The previous bill’s provisions on commodities were only in effect for five years. But take a look at the text of the new bill (H.R. 2642) the Rules Committee posted last night, which includes no “period of effectiveness” for the commodity title whatsoever. That effectively establishes it as the new permanent law. In fact, it also specifically makes our ridiculous sugar program permanent in Section 1301 by inserting language that says it shall be effective for “each succeeding crop year.”

To recap, the new bill text is NOT THE SAME AS WHAT THE HOUSE VOTED ON LAST MONTH, as some members are apparently being told. It includes a very consequential change to permanent law that is rather difficult to parse. I spent much of last night trying to figure it out and had to trade emails with a half-dozen experts before I felt like I understood it. If I’m reading it correctly (and I may not be), this new bill makes permanent our ridiculous sugar program and the new “reference price” system for other commodity crops. That seals into permanent law the sweet deal that cotton, peanuts, and rice got in this bill.

I’ve also heard a little bit more about the promises that were made to get conservatives to flip their votes. Word is that leadership is promising a motion to instruct conferees on means-testing of crop insurance. Some are under the impression that the motion would specify a means test starting at $250,000, while others claim that it’s at the Senate-approved level of $750,000.

While I suppose having a motion to instruct on means testing would be better than not having it, the notion that it is a “get” to allow conservatives to flip their votes is just laughable. You know how the House insists upon a policy? It passes it. If they think crop insurance means testing is important, allow the Chaffetz-Blumenauer $250,000 amendment or the Hanna-Pingree $750,000 amendment to get votes. Heck, incorporate it into the base text if you think it’s so important. An MTI is not totally useless, but it’s not much more than that. Conferees could easily just revert to the Senate-passed $750,000 language (or something even worse) and include a provision allowing the Secretary to NOT implement the means test based on some condition like impact on smaller farmers. That would mean we’d never get a means test at all and the MTI truly would be useless.

There is simply no justification for a member who voted against this bill a few weeks ago voting for it now. The language has gotten worse, not better. The process has gotten worse, not better. And yet the House seems poised to pass an agriculture bill that spends more than the Democratic-controlled Senate, more than requested by President Barack Obama, and even more than Republicans put forward in their budget resolution that passed with nearly unanimous support in their conference a few short months ago.

I’ve been around Washington long enough that few things surprise me, but I’ll admit to being more than a bit surprised today.


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