Monthly Archives: June 2012

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

The Mount Lemmon Marathon–an annual race held outside Tuscon, Arizona–starts in the desert floor and ends in the village of Summerhaven near the top of the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountain range. From start to finish, the course’s elevation increases 6,000 feet, all uphill.

Two thousand miles to the east, in Washington, DC, the effort to pass major legislation through Congress is often compared to a marathon. This week, the 2012 Farm Bill officially passed the halfway point.

After several weeks of uncertainty, the Senate passed its version of the bill on Thursday on a bipartisan vote of 64-35. The breakthrough came on Monday night, when Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced that an agreement had been reached to vote on 73 amendments (out of the over 300 that had originally been filed), followed by a vote on final passage.

The victory represented a major victory for Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who (along with Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, her Republican counterpart on the Committee) kept hope alive during a sometimes chaotic Senate debate, and managed to push, coax, and barter her way to an agreement that her colleagues could live with, and a final bill that a ragtag faction of legislators could support.

Here are some of the main take-aways from this month’s Senate debate:

  • The fact that bill supporters were able to secure unanimous consent for the agreement (a requisite for nearly all Senate actions) suggests that senators on all sides of the debate viewed the 73 amendments as largely reflective of the main issues at stake. But since the bill’s opponents could have easily blocked the agreement, it is also indicative of the power of the Farm Bill’s constituencies in a difficult political environment.
  • Senators who voted against the bill on final passage fell into three camps: (1) southerners concerned that the bill’s new insurance-based subsidy system skewed its benefits toward midwestern crops and away from southern ones; (2) Tea Party sympathizers on the Republican side opposed in principle to large spending programs; and (3) liberal Democrats who were against the measure’s cuts to the food stamp program.
  • From a political perspective, it may have helped that Chairwoman Stabenow consistently sought to frame the bill in terms of its impact on jobs, is fiscal restraint, and its move away from some of the most controversial agriculture subsidies.
  • While most of the 73 amendments included in the agreement were more about putting senators on record with respect to certain issues than about actually amending the bill (as expected, a large majority of the amendments were voted down), two amendments making relatively significant policy changes passed: an amendment to limit crop insurance subsidies going to the largest farms, and one to require crop insurance program participants to comply with certain conservation requirements.

The debate now shifts to the House of Representatives, where Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) has been posturing to increase the odds that his version of the bill can get an airing before the full House. On substance, the deepest divide between the Senate and House versions of the bill center on the food stamp program, to which the House bill would make significantly larger cuts.

More generally, while the bill’s relatively bloodless Senate passage gives it momentum, the dynamic is far more complicated in the House, whose rules heavily tilt the playing field toward a Republican majority with a large contingent of Tea Party-backed spending hawks.

Should negotiations stall as we get closer to September 30–the expiration date on the last Farm Bill–the debate is likely to take on added urgency as legislators face up to another daunting scenario: the prospect of having to pass a temporary extension of current programs to avoid reverting to outdated and potentially draconian policies of the 30s and 40s.

For now, the bill steps back from center stage, and its proponents can take a breather before gearing up for the next leg of the race. And as the finish line gets closer, the course seems to only be getting steeper.


This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

The road ahead is increasingly bumpy, but the Farm Bill continues to lurch forward, one pothole at a time.

After clearing a procedural hurdle last week, the Senate officially began consideration of the bill on Monday, setting the stage for a time-honored Senate practice–the filing, consideration, and disposition of amendments.

Under normal Senate rules, senators are free to offer as many amendments as they wish on any topic under the sun, and to demand a vote on them. Since disposing of amendments this way would be impractical–debating and voting on the hundreds of amendments offered to most Senate measures could take months–party leaders and bill managers attempt to negotiate a more efficient path forward. Some amendments are modified and incorporated into the legislation, some are set aside to be addressed at a later date, and many are withdrawn altogether, all in the interest of comity and compromise.

If a few senators put up a fight (nearly everything in the Senate requires the unanimous consent of all 100 members), 60 senators can vote to invoke “cloture,” limiting remaining debate and amendments, and forcing an eventual up-or-down vote on the measure.

Such is the procedural backdrop against which the Senate is currently debating the Farm Bill. Here are a few things you should know about the current state of play, and how things might develop in the coming days and weeks:

  • Somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 amendments have been filed to the bill so far. Some of these relate to substantive concerns about the legislation, but many do not .
  • Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas)–Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee–are working with their respective party leaders and members to reach an agreement on which amendments require votes, which can be accommodated without a vote, and which can be set aside.
  • By far the toughest nut to crack is on the Republican side, where it has been reported that certain senators–e.g., Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky)–are demanding votes on problematic amendments in return for their consent to move the process forward.
  • Should those negotiations fail, it will be up to Majority Leader Harry Reid to determine whether he can secure the 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture and bring debate to a close. Attempting to do so without being sure of the outcome is a risky gambit, because a failed vote would likely signal the bill’s demise.
  • Internal Republican politics are casting a shadow over the entire debate. With the prospect of the bill’s passage in the House even less certain, many Senate Republicans would just as soon avoid creating a political problem for themselves and their House brethren by taking a tough vote to leave yet another thorny piece of legislation on House Speaker John Boehner’s doorstep.

Despite these complicated dynamics and daunting challenges, the Farm Bill has lived to fight another week. And in a political environment where the assumption is that no significant legislation has a chance of passage, that simple fact proves the bill’s odd resilience.

Built on unorthodox regional and political alliances and propelled by a desire in both parties to champion the cause of rural communities, the rickety legislative wagon rolls on, hoping to stay ahead of the gathering storm.

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

The Standing Rules of the United States Senate officially consist of 44 rules, each with their own sub-rules, caveats, and conditions. They cover everything from the appointment of a presiding officer (Rule I), to the filibuster (Rule XXII), to the jurisdiction and make-up of Committees (Rules XXIV-XXVII); their reach extends even to practices like franking and the use of Senate television and radio studios.

Unfortunately for legislators, the list does not include rules for how to actually get things done in the Senate. Those rules exist in unwritten form, of course, and include the time-honored tactics of coalition-building, horse-trading, and back-slapping–the humours of the body politic.

Both sets of rules will be on full display this week as the Farm Bill hits the Senate floor, five weeks after the five-year, roughly $500 billion measure was approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee. Here are a few things you should know as the Senate begins debate on the bill:

  • The first hurdle in the debate is something called the “motion to proceed” to the bill, which is expected to take place Thursday. The bill’s supporters have asserted that they have the 60 votes required to proceed to the bill, should a vote even be necessary.
  • Because the bill will eventually be required to overcome another 60-vote hurdle to bring debate to a close (the infamous “cloture” vote), Thursday’s vote on the motion to proceed will be a rough gauge of the level of support for the bill, and the likelihood of its passing the Senate should it remain relatively intact.
  • The debate is likely to consume most of the month of June, during which there will be a veritable onslaught of amendments offered on a range of issues (including many not actually covered in the bill). Some of the amendments will reflect legitimate member priorities, while many others will be thinly veiled attempts at forcing a vote on a politically sensitive issue in an election year.
  • Because this bill–like any Farm Bill–represents a delicately crafted balance between competing regional and political interests, amendments that significantly affect the bill’s distribution of money or alter core provisions are a threat to final passage.
  • The biggest threat to the bill’s survival will not be senators and/or interest groups that believe the bill doesn’t do enough to address their specific agriculture priorities, but rather Tea Party sympathizers looking to make a high-profile statement about their opposition to “wasteful” spending.
  • The House of Representatives is working on its own, very different bill, and the differences between versions will eventually be negotiated by representatives of both chambers. In an effort to stave off potentially problematic amendments, proponents of the Senate bill will attempt to assure members that their concerns will ultimately be addressed in that forum.
  • Above all, the debate will be less a substantive back-and-forth than a political and procedural chess match to determine whether or not the bill can advance to the next stage. And even if it does, the process will be far from over; the House needs to act on its bill, outstanding differences need to be reconciled, and both chambers must vote–again–on the final product.

If this all sounds confusing, that’s because it is. But understanding the procedural tools legislators will have to use to shoehorn the bill through to final passage and the bald-faced political dynamics at play is essential if food reformers want to be taken seriously by the powerful few who actually write the Farm Bill.

And that’s why an “open letter to Congress” sent this week by celebrity chefs and prominent members of the sustainable food intelligentsia may not have been the best way for the movement to get its point across. At this late stage, high-profile “shaming” tactics are likely only to be resented–particularly by senators and staff who believe they’ve already done a lot for sustainable agriculture by moving away from market-distorting subsidies and directing additional funding to programs that support fruits and vegetables, organics, and research.

Food reformers would be well-served to pay close attention to the mechanics of the floor debate beginning this week, both because a Farm Bill resembling the Senate version is likely the best they can hope for this time around, and because the knowledge they glean will position them to have an even greater impact five years from now.

UPDATE: On Thursday, the Senate invoked cloture on the motion to proceed to the bill on a vote of 90-8, clearing the way to begin formal debate by no later than Tuesday.