9/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Congress headed home empty-handed last week, leaving farmers frustrated as the much-anticipated Farm Bill stalled in the House of Representatives.
U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, D-Pa., and staff members from Democratic Sen. Bob Casey and Republican Rep. Glenn Thompson’s offices talked about the status of the Farm Bill at Monday’s meeting of the Pennsylvania State Council of Farm Organizations in Harrisburg.
“I don’t have any good news for you,” Holden said. “The current Farm Bill expires at the end of the month, and there is political deadlock in the House.”
Holden is the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry. He is also a member of the Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry.
Drought assistance, milk income loss contract (MILC) and conservation programs will expire Sept. 30. Food stamp programs will continue.
Holden, like many members of Congress interested in the bill’s passage, had been asking House leadership and committee chairs for it to be brought up for a vote.
No such luck.
“That’s such a shame. When we did the last one, it was a bipartisan bill,” he said. “We all had to give and take, and at the end of the day helped to pass the best Farm Bill ever put into law.”
The Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill in June. The House Agriculture Committee passed a bipartisan bill in July, but it has languished since then because the House leadership has been reluctant to bring it up for a vote.
Much of the problem is with the food stamps portion of the bill. For Republicans, the cuts do not go far enough. For Democrats, they go too far.
Holden and Thompson have spent time talking with their colleagues but have been unsuccessful in changing votes in the Pennsylvania delegation.
John Busovsky, speaking on behalf of Thompson, said the congressman is trying to educate many of the new members of the House about the impact that agriculture programs have on their districts. He recognizes that “the real roadblock” is SNAP, or the food stamp program.
“Politically, it’s a very uncertain atmosphere,” Busovsky said, assessing the bill’s chance for passage in the lame duck session. There is a push from the House leadership for no “lame-duck packages.”
Holden also said there are only three weeks after the election for the House to pass a bill, get it to conference and then passed by Congress and on the president’s desk for his signature.
Liz Hermsen of Casey’s office echoed Holden’s comments, adding that the fate of the bill will rest on the outcome of the election.
“It all depends on Nov. 6,” she said. “It really depends on how things shift on that day.”
Several council members expressed frustration over the lack of a Farm Bill and the greater inaction of Congress this past session.
The panelists were frank, the bill has a tough road ahead. There is also the risk that House votes for the bill will not be there even if it is brought to the floor.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters last week that he would deal with the Farm Bill after the election because he did not believe there were 218 votes to pass either an extension or new legislation.
“The current situation that we face is that we’ve got people who believe there’s not enough reform in the Farm Bill that came out of committee, and others who believe there’s too much reform in the bill that came out of committee,” Boehner said. “But when we get back, we will deal with the issue of the Farm Bill.”
Amendments could also make the bill less likely, rather than more, to gather enough support for passage. The Senate had more than 300 amendments it had to sort through before passage of its version of the bill.
Holden said that in states where agriculture is a large economic driver, farmers and farm organizations need to take action.
“Members of Congress need to feel the heat,” he said.
Busovsky said this proposal has been painted as an example of overspending, which he finds highly ironic.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report on farm subsidies in advanced economies, governments’ farm spending has been shrinking.
Subsidies have shrunk to an all-time average low of 19 percent of total farm income in the 34 countries surveyed. U.S. government payments make up just 9 percent of farm income, down from 22 percent a quarter-century ago and a lower proportion than anywhere else but Chile, New Zealand and Argentina.
“This bill actually reduces spending. It gets rid of direct payments and reduces a number of programs,” Busovsky said. “It’s made out to be a huge handout to the farm industry and it’s not.”