WASHINGTON – House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday that no decision has been made on House consideration of a five-year, $500-billion farm and nutrition bill that has cleared the Senate and was approved earlier in the day by the House Agriculture Committee with some changes.
The bipartisan 35-11 vote by the committee shortly after midnight Thursday added to pressure on House Republican leaders to take a position on the far-reaching bill that will redesign safety nets for food producers, set conservation and energy policies and fund the food stamp program now helping feed 46 million Americans.
But GOP leaders have shown little enthusiasm for diverting from their election-year agenda for a bill that could take days to complete and could be difficult to pass. GOP conservatives don't like the high cost of the bill and the federal subsidies going to farmers while Democrats are unhappy with proposed cuts to the food stamp program.
Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., feels the committee did "an awful lot of good work," Boehner said at a weekly news conference. But "no decisions about it coming to the floor at this point," Boehner said.
The House will be in session for three more weeks before it leaves for its five-week summer break. After that there are only eight more legislative days in September. The current farm bill expires at the end of September.
"The House leadership needs to bring the farm bill to the floor for a vote," said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee. "Our nation's farmers and ranchers need the certainty of a new five-year farm bill and they need it before the current farm bill ends."
With droughts and weather disasters now hitting farmers, said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debby Stabenow, D-Mich., "failure to pass a farm bill or passing a short-term extension would add even more uncertainty and stress onto American farm families and small businesses."
Both the bill that passed the Senate last month and the House measure would end direct payments to farmers, even when they don't plant crops. Both put more emphasis on crop insurance, with the Senate creating a new taxpayer-financed revenue protection program that protects farmers from moderate losses before crop insurance kicks in. The House gives farmers a choice between the revenue support program and a pricing program, preferred by Southern rice and peanut farmers, that pays producers when prices dip below a certain level.
Both the House and Senate bills would reduce spending by about $1.9 billion a year over current levels through the changes in the commodity protection programs and consolidation of conservation programs. The House bill would save another $1.6 billion a year by targeting waste and abuse in the food stamp program, compared to $400 million in the Senate legislation. Food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, make up 80 percent of the farm bill's spending, nearly $80 billion a year.
"There are some good reforms in this bill. There are other parts of the farm bill that I have concerns with," Boehner said. He referred to what he said was "a Soviet-style dairy program in America today and one of the proposals in this farm bill would actually make it worse."
The House bill sets up a new, voluntary risk management insurance program for dairy producers. Those who choose the new program would have to participate in a market stabilization program that could dictate production cuts when oversupply drives down prices.
The bill, which the committee approved after 15 hours of debate on some 100 amendments, was not without critics: Environmental groups said it allows greater use of pesticides and relaxes rules on genetically engineered crops; food groups said cuts to the food stamp program could deprive two to three million people of food benefits; fiscal conservatives said it doesn't do enough to reduce federal subsidies for well-off farmers.
But the House committee's vote also opened the possibility of direct talks between the House and Senate agriculture panels on a compromise bill that could be presented to the full House later as a completed package. That's what happened recently with a two-year highway bill that had divided House Republicans.