More than 500 backers of farm bill write Speaker Boehner

Jul 5, 2013

More than 500 ag businesses, commodity groups and general farm organizations sent a letter last Tuesday to House Speaker John Boehner asking for an intact farm bill to be passed.

The letter comes as there is mounting interest among Republicans to divide the legislation into two bills— one that would include only nutrition programs and another that would include most of the rest of the farm bill such as commodities, crop insurance and trade.

The letter included support from farming, conservation, ag financing, rural development, forestry, renewable energy and crop insurance groups. Backers included associations from 40 states. They urged Boehner to bring the farm bill “back to the floor as soon as possible,” adding that 16 million jobs depend on the agricultural industry.

Moreover, the ag groups added that the farm bill is a balance between a broad array of interests that has built a coalition over time in areas such as nutrition, farming and conservation. They warned against efforts to divide that 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 5-year farm bill upon returning in July,” the groups stated. “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.”

The House version of the farm bill failed 195-234 on June 20 in a vote that is still being analyzed by pundits for its long-term implications. It marked the first time a major farm bill had failed to get a majority vote on the House floor. The bill drew only 24 Democratic votes while 62 Republicans also voted against final passage.

Conservatives now are floating the idea of separating nutrition programs from farm policy, believing it could allow more cuts to get a bill passed. Capitol Hill newspapers reported last week that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-VA, is polling members on the possible vote count.

Conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and Club for Growth are the main champions of dividing the farm bill. Yet, that won’t be enough. CQ Roll Call reported late Monday that Club for Growth also expects more budget cuts, not just in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but also in farm policy.

Barney Keller, a spokesman for the Club for Growth, in an email statement to CQ Roll Call stated, “Republicans should put farm subsidies on a path to elimination and devolve food stamps to the states, where they belong.”

While some members of the Republican caucus clearly back efforts to split the bill, others oppose it. Republican Rep. Tom Latham told DTN on Monday he doesn’t think the effects of dividing the farm-and-food coalition haven’t been fully considered.

“I’m not sure you pass either section of it, as a standalone” (bill), Latham said. “I think it would be very difficult to get enough support, certainly for the food stamps by themselves. A lot of the urban folks in the House of Representatives probably would not be supportive of just the farm section of it by itself. So I don’t know how you pass it without what used to be the coalition of the urban folks with the food programs and the aggies.

“The reason it is getting some traction is just trying to find a sweet spot on the food stamps and on the ag policy has been difficult with the vote we had so they are looking at all options, trying to find a way to move a bill so we can find a way to get to conference,” Latham said. “Technically, if you pass the food-stamp portion, then you could conference with the Senate on a larger bill with the farm policy also in that.”

Sen. Charles Grassley, R- IA, also was touring southwest Iowa on Monday. He told DTN he supports the idea of splitting SNAP from the rest of the farm bill, though an effort to do so a year ago in the Senate was defeated, he said. Grassley said he backs dividing the legislation because too many people hear about a $900 billion, 10-year cost of a farm bill and think all the money goes to farmers when 80 percent of it is nutrition aid.

“People read that in the New York Times and think it all goes to farmers,” Grassley said.

Food aid was an original component of the “farm bill” going back to the 1930s when the federal government created programs to buy commodities from farmers who needed federal support to survive as well. Excess commodities were then turned over to relief agencies to give to the poor. Sens. George McGovern and Bob Dole built on that concept in the 1970s to create the food stamp program after a CBS documentary put a spotlight on hunger in America.

“This was the same time you had surpluses of agricultural products in the 1970s, so it was a way to get rid of the surpluses of farmers to help the farmers and to help the people who didn’t have a good diet,” Grassley said. “It was hooked together because there were so many city people in the House of Representatives who didn’t want farm bills. It helped get the farm bill through.”

Failing to complete a bill jeopardized some of the key elements of reform already pushed by both the Senate and the House, such as eliminating the $4.8 billion direct-payment program. Yet, the program continues to survive through extensions.

“I don’t know what they are going to do, but I do know they are going to have to pass something,” Grassley said, of the House. “We can’t justify another oneyear extension, and we can’t justify direct payments under existing law.” — Chris Clayton, DTN