Farm bill in limbo as Congress goes on vacation

It’s always been an odd marriage.

Much of the federal farm bill has nothing to do with agriculture as roughly 80 percent of funding is dedicated toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Farmers tend to dislike the merging of two dissimilar programs though Iowa politicians in both parties agree it is the only path forward.

With the current farm bill – already living on the borrowed time of a one-year extension – set to expire Sept. 30, Iowa’s delegation is demanding action, but the inclusion of SNAP remains a stumbling block.

Earlier this week, Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat from northeast Iowa, sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, urging him to delay the annual August recess until a farm bill was passed. That plea went unanswered and Congress adjourned Friday. It won’t return until September when it will be in session for only nine days.

A farm bill that included SNAP was defeated in the House in June. All of Iowa’s delegation voted ‘yes’ but many Republicans voted against the measure because cuts to SNAP were too shallow while some Democrats were opposed because the cuts were too deep. In July, the House passed a farm bill, 216-208, that did not include SNAP. All Democrats voted ‘no’ while Iowa Republicans Tom Latham and Steve King voted in favor. Braley called it the “fake farm bill” which has “absolutely no chance of going anywhere in the Senate.”

Braley told the Times-Republican he’s heard rumors that the House would take up a SNAP-only bill, but, “I’ve seen nothing from leadership to indicate a firm commitment.”

Braley said the seemingly incongruous packaging in the farm bill, first put in place in 1973, is a political necessity in a House “increasingly dominated by urban and suburban lawmakers who have very little connection to rural America.”

That shift is starkly seen in the congressional roll call. A hundred years ago, Iowa and California each had 13 members, but now Iowa has six and California 55. Braley said including nutrition assistance is a way to garner support from representatives whose districts are long on skyscrapers but short on soybeans.

Conservative Republican Rep. Steve King, who represents northwest Iowa, agrees with Braley that the two pieces should be wedded. While King supported the farm policy-only bill, he said in a statement he was “disappointed the Farm Bill that passed the House today did not contain changes to current nutrition policy.”

King added that he hoped a bill reforming SNAP would come up for debate soon.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he would like to see the two issues separated but realizes the coupling is a necessary evil.

“I get tired of reading in the New York Times about a 900 billion dollar bloated farm bill; like all that money is going into the farmer’s pockets,” Grassley said. “It’s bad public relations for agriculture, but as a practical matter you’re not going to get a bill to the president that doesn’t have food stamps in it.”

Farmer Robert Smith agrees with Grassley on both counts. Smith, who planted two-thirds corn and one-third soybeans this year on his farm in northeast Marshall County, said he’d like to see the two issues split apart, but “I’m not naive enough to think they’ll do it. Reason has nothing to do with anything in Washington.”

Dean Fisher, a Republican state legislator and livestock farmer from Garwin, said representatives “shouldn’t be buying votes by combining the two” and agrees with the House GOP’s move to break the bill in two.

“My frustration with it is that it does too much to support large farmers – the Ted Turners of the world – that shouldn’t get anything out of a farm bill,” Fisher said. “I want to see it be a safety net for the small guy not a windfall for the big guy.”

The Senate, as it did last summer, passed a traditional farm bill, 66-27, in June. The next step in the legislative process is for the House to request a conference committee – a group of lawmakers from each party that would hammer out differences between the two bills. The compromise bill would voted on, without amendments, in each chamber.

Grassley spoke with a Senate veteran whom he declined to identify (“one-on-one conversations are private,” he said) earlier this week who said the House might agree to a preconference in which congressional staffers would negotiate part of an agreement during the August recess so “there wouldn’t be a lot to do in September and maybe a bill could be passed by the end of the month.”

“A lot can get done in August even when members aren’t around,” Grassley said.

A year ago, Congress passed a one-year extension of the 2008 farm bill after the House chose not to bring a farm bill up for a vote. Neither Braley nor Grassley thought another stopgap was possible.

“It’s not a solution that makes any sense. It’s time for us to own up to our responsibility and get this five-year extension done,” Braley said. “This bill is absolutely critical to Iowa, to Iowa farmers and to people to depend on agriculture and yet we can’t seem to get the most basic work done to get a bill that the Senate will take up.”

Neither farmer who spoke with the Times-Republican said they were all that concerned about the impacts a lapsed farm bill would have on their operations, but Braley said the expiration would “destabilize agriculture across the country.”

Without a new bill, farm policy would revert to the 1949 Farm Bill which includes a number of restrictions on how many acres farmers can plant. It also would cause more taxpayer dollars to flow into the pockets of those who farm certain grains, Grassley said. The federal government currently uses target pricing – a safeguard included in this year’s Senate bill that protects farmers if market prices tumble. The mechanism pays farmers the difference between market price and the target price if the former is lower than the latter. Target prices under the 1949 Farm Bill are higher for nearly all grains but are significantly higher than current market prices for cotton, wheat and rice according to the Congressional Research Service.

The farm bill’s expiration would also create what Business Insider magazine dubbed “the milk cliff”, and if the country passed over it the cost of milk would double to $8 a gallon.

Braley is confident a farm bill will pass, but he’s hoping Iowans will keep the issue on the front burner by asking tough questions.

“There are people spending a lot of time in Iowa who appear to have their sights on higher office in 2016 and I encourage all Iowans to ask them where they stand on a five-year extension of a farm bill,” Braley said.