By TIM THORNBERRY
WASHINGTON, D.C. — For a piece of legislation deemed bipartisan in the past, the pending farm bill has turned out to be anything but. The U.S. House finally passed its version – but stripped of nutrition programs, causing concern from many who have a stake in agriculture or food programs.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) was separated to make two distinct pieces of legislation. H.R. 2642, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management (FARRM) Act, passed the House last Thursday by a vote of 216-208 along party lines for the most part. Not one Democrat voted for it; neither did 12 Republicans.
Last month, the House failed to pass the bill after passage came in the Senate. Since then efforts had been made to get the two issues separated. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, a Republican from Indiana, was one of the lawmakers who led the way in dividing the bill.
“Transparent government won an important victory today,” he said after the vote. “Conservatives seized an opportunity to split the farm bill, a landmark reform that breaks the unholy alliance between food stamps and agriculture policy. For the first time since the 1970s, taxpayers will have an honest look at how Washington spends their money on agriculture and food stamp policy.
“As a fourth-generation farmer, I am proud of my work to pass the first true, farm-only farm bill in more than four decades. This is just the first of many reforms and I look forward to working with my colleagues to continue reducing the size of a government that has driven taxpayers nearly $17 trillion in debt.”
National Farmers Union (NFU) President Roger Johnson wasn’t nearly as happy. He said the strictly partisan vote to pass the farm bill apart from the nutrition title undermines the long-time coalition of support for a unified, comprehensive farm bill which has historically been written on a bipartisan basis.
“NFU will continue to do all it can to get a reasonable bill through the conference process,” he added, referring to the next step – negotiation on a single bill agreeable to both House and Senate. “Any final legislation must continue existing permanent law provisions and include meaningful safety net protections for both family farmers facing difficult times and the food-insecure.”
In addition to no nutrition title, the bill repeals “Permanent Law,” which refers to the Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1938 and the Agricultural Act of 1949. The provisions in those laws actually remain on the books.
Each time a farm bill passes, those regulations are amended but in the event a bill can’t be passed, agriculture administration would fall back to the provisions contained in those laws. Legislators have used the threat of a return to those 1940s regulations in years past, to push new farm bills through. If the repeal stands, this bill would become the new Permanent Law.
A contentious conference
Conference committee will be the next stop, where Senate Democrats are poised to strike back. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said, “The bill passed by the House today is not a real farm bill, and is an insult to rural America, which is why it’s strongly opposed by more than 500 farm, food and conservation groups.
“We will go to conference with the bipartisan, comprehensive farm bill that was passed in the Senate that not only reforms programs, supports families in need and creates agriculture jobs, but also saves billions more than the extremely flawed House bill.”
Those 500-plus farm organizations sent a joint letter last week to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) asking to bring back the bill for a vote and not to split the nutrition title. The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) helped gather the group together in order to make their case. In part, the letter reads: “Farm bills represent a delicate balance between America’s farm, nutrition, conservation and other priorities, and accordingly require strong bipartisan support. It is vital for the House to try once again to bring together a broad coalition of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to provide certainty for farmers, rural America, the environment and our economy in general, and pass a five-year farm bill upon returning in July.
“We believe that splitting the nutrition title from the rest of the bill could result in neither farm nor nutrition programs passing, and urge you to move a unified farm bill forward.”
AFBF President Bob Stallman said it looks forward to moving ahead with fundamental farm policy legislation. “While we don’t yet know what the next steps will be, we will be working with both sides of the aisle and both chambers of Congress to ensure passage of a new five-year farm bill,” he added. “While we were hopeful the farm bill would not be split, nor Permanent Law repealed, we will now focus our efforts on working with lawmakers to deliver a farm bill to the President’s desk for his signature by September.”
Mark Haney, president of Kentucky Farm Bureau, said while there may be good arguments for splitting the bill it was the organization’s preference not to do so. “The only thing that worries me about splitting (the bill) there has been a long-term coalition put together to work on farm and basically food policy. Nutrition actually goes deeper than just food stamps,” he said.