A Milestone Passed: The 2012 Farm Bill Survives the Senate

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.

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