‘Frustrant’ party stalemate: The new norm in farm bills?

WASHINGTON — The stalemate over the current farm bill could herald a new era in farm policy, as it joins the last three farm bills that have been marked by delays and partisan divisions — a contrast to the legislation’s history of bipartisanship.

Every five years, Congress is tasked with crafting a new federal farm bill. The nationwide law that began 90 years ago as a series of payments to farmers now has an impact that goes beyond the farm, with programs that create wildlife habitat, address climate change and provide the nation’s largest federal food program.

The current farm bill process, already nearly a year behind schedule, is at an impasse as Democrats and Republicans argue over how to pay for the bill and whether to impose restrictions on food and climate programs. The previous farm bill was set to expire in September 2023 and was extended through the end of September of this year.

Historically, farm bills have been completed within months of their expiration date. Ten of the 13 farm bills since 1965 have been enacted by Dec. 31 in the year they were due to expire. But three of the four farm bills since 2008 have passed that date.

The last three bills – including the 2018 bill, which is the last version to pass on time – have featured partisan differences on spending.

This trend reflects a shift in perceptions of legislation that was once bipartisan.

Farm bill moves through U.S. House committee, but faces tough task

“The last two farm bills were anomalies,” said Jonathan Coppess, a professor of agricultural law and policy at the University of Illinois who has written a history of the farm bill. “Now that it’s been three in a row, I’m not sure that works.”

Recent report The independent Congressional Research Service finds that since 2008, farm bills have been delayed, vetoed and not voted on enough to pass on a floor.

The report concluded: “Over time, farm laws have become more complex and politically sensitive. As a result, the timetable for reauthorization has become less certain.”

Debate on spending

The same uncertainty surrounds the current farm bill, as Republicans in the House and Senate push for spending limits that Democrats say are unacceptable.

“I don’t think we’re going to be anywhere close to passing a farm bill unless the people negotiating the farm bill are realistic about what can be done in a resource-constrained environment,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview with the radio show Farming Conversations 21st June.

The Republican-majority House Agriculture Committee has approved a farm bill largely along party lines in tardy May, after hours of debate and complaints from Democrats that the process was not as bipartisan as in previous years.

Four Democrats voted for the bill in committee, but they joined 20 other Democrats on the committee in a “dissenting view” letter expressing “genuine concerns about the direction of the majority farm bill” — which they predicted would stall and be ineffective unless it made significant changes.

The Senate Agriculture Committee has yet to vote. Republican and Democratic committee leaders have introduced contrasting bills and expressed frustration.

“The most frustrating time”

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who is retiring after this term, called the process “the most frustrating” of her career and said she would not let the Republican approach to the farm bill become her legacy.

“I’ve actually been involved in six farm bills and led three of them, and that was the most frustrating time,” Stabenow said. in an interview with Michigan’s Progress in tardy June. “Because he is much more partisan than usual, and particularly on the issue of food aid.”

Partisan division is not uncommon in today’s Congress, but it is notable in the case of the farm bill, which has historically brought together lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. Bipartisan support may be necessary for final passage, because the size of the $1.5 trillion farm bill means it inevitably loses some votes from fiscal and other conservatives.

“If there’s no bipartisan bill, it’s not going to happen, no matter who’s in power. The margins are too close to do it without bipartisan support,” said Collin Peterson, a former Democratic member of the Minnesota House of Representatives and chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

USDA chief expresses ‘deep concern’ over nutrition cuts in GOP farm bill

This dispute over keys This year for Democrats, it’s a funding calculation that will put limits on the “Thrift Food Plan” formula that calculates benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Republicans are using the caps to balance other spending in the farm bill. The ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, has said he wants to put “more agriculture in the farm bill.”

Peterson, who now heads a consulting firm of the same name, told States Newsroom that Republicans will likely need to make changes to the bill’s nutrition title to get the bill passed.

“It is unrealistic to think they will be able to do this without making significant changes to this part of the bill,” he said.

An “uneasy alliance” from the very beginning

The nutrition program that is at the root of the impasse was added to the legislation 50 years ago to assist build a coalition with broad bipartisan support.

Lawmakers added a nutrition title to the 1973 farm bill, which broadened the interests in the bill in the House. Lawmakers who wanted to augment payments to cotton and wheat farmers in their districts were able to get support from representatives from districts whose citizens could benefit from food assistance.

“This was the first coalition building between these two interests,” Coppess said. “But it was pretty intense. And it was an uneasy alliance from the start.”

Since then, the farm bill has become, in many ways, a food bill. Three-quarters of the bill’s mandatory spending falls under the food title, which includes SNAP, the nation’s largest hunger program.

The program, formerly called food stamps, supplements food budgets for low-income households. Anti-hunger groups have joined outside interests in pushing for the law every five years.

But because it involves so much funding, the nutrition program has become a target for Republicans who want to cut it to balance other spending in the bill.

“The dispute is about all the fees,” Peterson said. “And that’s been the problem with the last three farm bills, and this one is too.”

Peterson, who was chairman of the House Agriculture Committee during the 2008 farm bill and was the top Democrat on the committee during the 2013 and 2018 bills, said partisan divisions on the committee are nothing new at this stage of the process.

The farm bills he worked on also faced bipartisan votes in the House of Representatives but ultimately won bipartisan support after conference with the Senate.

“At the end of the day, each of these bills was partisan until we got through conference committee, and then at that point it was bipartisan because the Senate brought some of that into the discussion,” Peterson said. “So what’s happening here is what happened with the last three farm bills.”

The recent 2018 farm bill was characterized by heated partisan debate centered around SNAP work requirements and other eligibility rules.

The House Agriculture Committee’s bill this year initially failed to pass on the House floor, then later passed by a vote of 213-211. Twenty Republicans joined all House Democrats in voting against the bill.

After reconciling the Senate bill and removing some controversial changes to SNAP, most Democrats changed their votes to support, and the House agreed to the final conference report in a bipartisan vote of 369-47. Dissenting votes included 44 Republicans and three Democrats.

Trend towards cracks

Party divisions over nutrition title create new dividing lines in Farm Bill

Historically, farm bill alliances have been more regional than partisan, founded on common ground of support for common crops or producers: cotton in the South, corn in the Midwest, and wheat on the Western Plains.

“Our biggest problem in the four farm bills that I wrote wasn’t Republican versus Democrat. It was usually Midwest versus Southeast, Northeast, or Southwest from a crop perspective,” former Sen. Saxby Chambliss said in an interview.

Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, served on the House Agriculture Committee from 1995 to 2002 and on the Senate Agriculture Committee from 2005 to 2011, serving as chairman and ranking member, among other positions.

“There’s a different political dynamic in the Senate today that didn’t exist when I was there,” Chambliss said. “How much of that permeates the farm bill? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s obviously a little more vicious than I’ve ever experienced.”

As partisan politics took root in different regions of the country and the South increasingly aligned itself with the Republican Party, this was reflected in the politics of the Farm Bill.

“You can see a definite shift in direction where the regional and party divisions are now very similar,” Coppess said.

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