Rules and Fallacies: The Senate Debates the 2012 Farm Bill

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.

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