The Beef Angle
House slated to debate Farm Bill this week

House slated to debate Farm Bill this week

There are several points of contention this week as the House of Representatives takes up debate on the Farm Bill.

REMEMBER those great educational videos of yesteryear known as Schoolhouse Rock? “Conjunction Junction, what’s your function?” was always one of my favorites, but the ideal video to watch this week is the classic “I’m just a bill.”

Sung wistfully by a lonely bill awaiting his turn through the legislative process, the song details the journey of a would-be law from drafting through a possible presidential veto. Catchy, as a rule, the song is a pithy romp through the Capitol designed to teach kids of the ‘70s and ‘80s some basic background in civics.

The U.S. House of Representatives is slated to take up the Farm Bill later this week.

This week, the House of Representatives is slated to take up the Farm Bill – specifically H.R. 1947, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 (FARRM – clever acronym, huh?). Last night the House Rules Committee met to haggle over the ground rules for debating amendments to the bill – as many as 124 already filed at last check – and the committee is set to meet again today.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R, Va.) has scheduled floor time for the bill later this week, and most observers think Wednesday or Thursday is when the debate will finally hit the floor. While the Senate had a relatively easy time getting their version of the bill dispatched through the agriculture committee and floor votes, the Senate and the House are very different chambers.

House Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R, Okla.), offers his top reasons to support H.R. 1947, aka "The Farm Bill."

Erik Wasson at The Hill outlined seven “Farm Bill fights to watch” this morning, and I’d say his list is a pretty darn good look at what could go wrong in getting a bill passed this week. The differences between House Republicans and Democrats (and the House and the Senate in general) over nutrition assistance funding is well documented at this point: House Republicans want to cut more money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and that cold be a very sticky wicket, indeed.

The differences between the two chambers and the two parties are stark enough that the White House yesterday fired a warning shot across the House GOP bow, stating in no uncertain terms that the President would veto the House version of the Farm Bill absent serious changes to proposed SNAP funding. Now, as the lowly bill in the Schoolhouse Rock video could tell you, the Administration is getting a little ahead of itself, as a Conference Committee between the two chambers would have to come to some agreement on the bill before the President would even have the opportunity to take the Veto Pen out of his desk drawer, but the statement is important nonetheless.

President George W. Bush famously vetoed the 2008 Farm Bill (originally the 2007 Farm Bill), with Congress swiftly overriding the President’s wishes, so there is precedent here, but I think it unlikely that if the President can’t get behind the bill that there are enough votes in Congress to overcome the likely issues that would keep Obama from getting on board in the first place.

Aside from nutrition funding, the typical regional commodity differences will remain in play, including the basic Midwest corn/soy versus Southern rice/peanut arguments over subsidies. The Midwestern delegation is happy to get behind a more market-oriented approach to the farm safety net, while the South is ardently in favor of retaining the traditional subsidy payment system.

Sugar, likewise a perennial topic of dissention and confusion, is back on the table again, which again poses the question, why are we heavily subsidizing one of the worst possible legal food ingredients in history? Why are we subsidizing the obesity epidemic on one hand, and trying to figure out policy solutions to fixing it on the other? (Editorial note: as a guy who lost >75 pounds following the principles Gary Taubes describes in great detail in his books, I buy whole-heartedly into the notion that sugar, in all its various forms, is the major culprit in the obesity epidemic.)

International food aid has become an unusual sticking point in the bill, as President Obama has proposed a massive overhaul of the way the U.S. supports hungry populations abroad. Similarly, the “egg bill” could become another point of contention, though I doubt either will seriously derail the bill’s chances.

A major disagreement over dairy policy, however, will probably get a little more traction. The approach taken in the House Ag Committee version of the bill, known as the Dairy Security Act, does not have the support of House Speaker John Boehner, who has otherwise pledged to get behind the bill and push it through his chamber, nor did the proposed program get much of an endorsement in a newly-published Cornell University study that suggested a competing approach would save taxpayer money and be more advantageous to small farms.

The Goodlatte-Scott Amendment, proposed by the powerful chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte and Georgia Democrat David Scott, would replace the current Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program with a new margin insurance program for producers. While the Dairy Security Act would also create a margin insurance program, it would also require a supply-management scheme that is highly criticized by the dairy foods industry and the Cornell analysis.

According to Cornell, in fact, the Dairy Security act is heavily weighted toward larger producers. The Goodlatte-Scott amendment, on the other hand, would theoretically benefit small farmers by requiring lower premium payments from smaller farms and higher premiums for larger producers than does the Dairy Security Act.

With all that in mind, it’s probably good to start whistling a happy tune, because at this point, H.R. 1947 is “still just a bill, yes it’s only a bill, and it’s sitting here on Capitol Hill…”

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