Farm Bill Heads to Senate Floor Today: Future Uncertain

Today the 1,100-page Farm Bill (totaling $955 billion over the next ten years), heads to the floor of the U.S. Senate.  The measure, S.954 faces Family farman uncertain future as amendments exacerbating deep regional and partisan divides on issues including budget, trade and nutrition could upend the legislation.

U.S. Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-MS) were able to navigate the complex piece of legislation through their committee on May 14 with a final vote of 15-5.  However, given that Senate floor proceedings emphasize full deliberation on legislation and respect the rights of individual Senators over the power of the majority, (see our previous article on the filibuster) the five committee members voting against the farm bill in committee (4 republicans, 1 democrat) forecasts not only the divergence of opinions on the complex legislation but how easily it is to upset the delicate balance struck on the legislation and quickly set up the farm bill for another extension.

(The farm bill has typically been reauthorized every five years since its inception in the 1930’s.  The current farm bill is under a one year extension that ends September 30. The farm bill deals with a wide range of issues including commodity subsidies, land conservation, international trade, nutrition, finance, risk management and rural development.)

Immigration Interruptus?

There are also timing challenges.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) would like to make progress on the comprehensive immigration package that continues to languish S. 744.  Majority Leader Reid has committed to interrupt work on the farm bill to move to the immigration overhaul legislation to the floor once the Judiciary Committee finishes its mark up.  Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT) is attempting to complete mark up of the legislation before the Memorial Day recess.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has released a new scoring of the Senate farm bill, S. 954, slightly lowering the projected savings. CBO now estimates the bill would reduce spending by $17.8 billion, that’s down $200 million from the score of $18 billion on the previous version.

Houses Divided Mean More Delays

Moreover, the ongoing investigations with regard to inadequate security at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, and the Internal Revenue Service targeting non-profit conservative groups is eroding what little camaraderie that existed in an already polarized Congress. If these investigations surface additional matters that must be taken up by both the House and Senate this will require floor time in the remaining 45 legislative days until the end of the fiscal year and expiration of the current farm bill extension on September 30.

Last year the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee adopted the 2012 version of the farm bill on April 26.  It took nearly two months before the farm bill was adopted by the full Senate, 64-35, on June 21.  To expedite final passage this year, some of the amendments supported in last year’s measure have already been incorporated into S. 954.  Also, the Senate Agriculture Committee has included in the bill the agreement worked out between farm groups, insurance companies and conservationists on tying conservation compliance to crop insurance.

Nutrition vs. Farm Bill?

At best it remains uncertain for the future of this, and subsequent farm bills given the internal and external challenges.  As to the external challenges, no one can predict when the next scandal will erupt and what legislation being considered at the time will be impacted.  Internally, it may have been a good idea in the 1960’s to couple farm legislation with food nutrition. But today that logic is questionable given the make-up of Congress and the fact that continued polarization in Congress is highly likely in the foreseeable future.  It may prove ill conceived to link the future of farm and food legislation on the level of congressional polarization in the year of its next reauthorization.

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Tim Cansler