House Republicans Pass Drought Relief and Delay Farm Bill

The U.S. House passed a $383 million emergency relief package for livestock producers affected by the worst drought in almost a half-century as Republicans and Democrats complained about inaction on a broader farm bill that would help more farmers and ranchers.

House Republican leaders pushed the stand-alone drought relief bill, which passed on a 223-197 vote, because they don’t have enough support to advance a five-year farm bill approved July 12 by the House Agriculture Committee. The Senate won’t pass the drought measure before leaving Washington today, said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow.

The farm bill’s difficulties in the House resemble those House Speaker John Boehner encountered when he tried to pass a transportation and highway measure. The measure languished for months because of opposition among Republican members and never came to a House vote.

One big difference: Boehner favored the House highway measure. The Ohio Republican said the farm bill perpetuates a “Soviet-style” dairy subsidy and “would actually make it worse.”

Republicans are split between rural and urban lawmakers who have varied perspectives about farm policy and transportation needs. Some have philosophical objections to farm subsidies.

‘Incredibly Complicated’

When it comes to farm legislation, “the politics are incredibly complicated,” said Patrick Westhoff, who directs the Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Some Republicans “would like to see a lot more reductions in spending” and fewer policies that “direct marketing and production decisions,” he said.

The House farm bill would cut U.S. Department of Agriculture programs by $35.1 billion over the next decade. Democrats are resisting the $16 billion in cuts over a decade to the food-stamp nutrition program for low-income Americans.

The “overwhelming majority” of Democrats oppose the legislation, said second-ranking House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Those who support it want to set up negotiations with the Senate, which passed a bipartisan measure, he said.

Today, Boehner told reporters the House can’t pass a farm measure because lawmakers are “pretty well divided” over whether it would spend too little or too much on food stamps.

“I haven’t seen 218 votes in the middle to pass a farm bill,” Boehner said.

Senate Bill

The Senate’s agriculture bill, passed last month, is designed to save $23.1 billion over a decade, cutting food stamps by about $4 billion.

In the House, “if the problem were only food stamps, they could probably figure something out,” Westhoff said. Among Republicans, “there are a lot of people who would like to see as many free-market principles included in the farm bill and would oppose the level of spending” for agriculture and nutrition programs, he said.

Democrats including Minnesota Representative Tim Walz, who voted for the farm bill in committee, compared the drought relief measure to “patching a roof when it’s raining.”

Farmers wouldn’t “need the ad hoc disaster relief assistance if you just pass a farm bill that deals with these issues,” Walz said.

“Farmers aren’t panicked by the drought,” he said. “They’ve lived through this; what they are worried about, they don’t have the tools necessary to plan for it.”

Fruit Orchards

Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat seeking re-election in November, said the drought measure doesn’t help Michigan farmers with parched fruit orchards.

“So I’m not passing a bill that only has some help for some producers,” she said. Senate Democrats will use the House-passed measure to seek negotiations on broader farm legislation that includes disaster relief, she said.

Walz said if House leaders put the farm bill up for a vote, enough Democrats would support it to advance the measure to a House-Senate conference committee. Democrats made similar predictions when they demanded that Boehner schedule a House floor vote for a bipartisan highway funding measure passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Transportation Bill

The transportation measure passed by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee didn’t get a floor vote because Boehner couldn’t get enough backing among Republicans to pass it without widespread Democratic support.

Instead, House and Senate negotiators struck a compromise and on June 29 both chambers passed a 27-month, $94.3 billion extension the day before highway programs were set to lapse.

House leaders “pulled a rabbit out of a hat,” said Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole.

The committee-passed farm bill is in trouble because a growing number of lawmakers in both parties resist “lavishing massive support on parts of agriculture that don’t need it,” said Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer. The House may be “reaching a point that there is critical mass on the House floor to resist that,” he said.

Heritage Acton for America, a pro-Republican political action committee, opposed the drought measure in a statement that said it makes farmers “more dependent on government and bails them out for not adequately preparing for hardship” after the insurance program lapsed in September.

‘Market Direction’

Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, head of the fiscally conservative Republican Study Committee, said he opposed the drought measure because the U.S. needs to get to a “market direction” in agriculture policy.

California Democrat Jim Costa said the measure “does not help pork or poultry producers” and gives only “limited protection to dairy farmers.”

Walz said many Democrats are balking at cuts in conservation programs needed to raise the $383 million to revive the livestock assistance program that expired last Sept. 30 and extend it through September 2012.

Some freshmen Republicans were “calling it a bailout,” Walz said.

After scrapping a plan to seek a one-year extension of current farm programs, House Republicans then turned to the stand-alone drought measure.

In floor debate, Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Agriculture Committee, spoke about the farm bill that “my colleagues seem to either love or hate, or love to hate, or hate to love.”

“The bill is not perfect, no legislation is,” yet it “saves over $35 billion,” Lucas said.

Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the panel, said the drought measure is “a sad substitute for what is really needed, a long-term farm policy.”

Peterson said the farm bill would “do a better job of providing certainty” for farmers “and assistance during this period of drought.”

The drought-relief measure is H.R. 6233.

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