Bloomberg News

House Republicans Seek Drought Relief While Delaying Farm Bill

August 02, 2012

U.S. House Republican leaders are seeking votes to deliver financial help to livestock producers hit by one of the worst droughts in a decade, as Congress nears a five-week recess.

House Republican leaders are pushing a $383 million stand- alone drought relief bill because they don’t have enough support to advance a five-year farm bill approved July 12 by the House Agriculture Committee.

The farm bill’s difficulties in the House resemble those House Speaker John Boehner encountered when he tried to pass a transportation and highway measure. The measure languished for months because of opposition among Republican members and never came to a House vote.

One big difference: Boehner favored the House highway measure. The Ohio Republican said the farm bill perpetuates a “Soviet-style” dairy subsidy and “would actually make it worse.”

Republicans are split between rural and urban lawmakers who have varied perspectives about farm policy and transportation needs. Some have philosophical objections to farm subsidies.

When it comes to farm legislation, “the politics are incredibly complicated,” said Patrick Westhoff, who directs the Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Some Republicans “would like to see a lot more reductions in spending” and fewer policies that “direct marketing and production decisions,” he said.

Food Stamps

The House farm bill would cut U.S. Department of Agriculture programs by $35.1 billion over the next decade. Democrats are resisting the $16 billion in cuts over a decade to the food-stamp nutrition program for low-income Americans.

The “overwhelming majority” of Democrats oppose the plan, said second-ranking House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Those who support it are aiming to set up negotiations with the Senate, which passed a bipartisan measure, he said.

The Senate’s agriculture bill, passed last month, is designed to save $23.1 billion over a decade, cutting food stamps by about $4 billion.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, hasn’t said whether his chamber will vote on a drought-relief measure this week if it is passed by the House.

In the House, “if the problem were only food stamps, they could probably figure something out,” Westhoff said. Among Republicans, “there a lot of people who would like to see as many free-market principles included in the farm bill and would oppose the level of spending” for agriculture and nutrition programs, he said.

‘Patching a Roof’

Democrats including Minnesota Representative Tim Walz, who voted for the farm bill in committee, compared the drought relief measure to “patching a roof when it’s raining.”

Farmers wouldn’t “need the ad hoc disaster relief assistance if you just pass a farm bill that deals with these issues,” Walz said.

“Farmers aren’t panicked by the drought,” he said. “They’ve lived through this; what they are worried about, they don’t have the tools necessary to plan for it.”

Walz said if House leaders put the farm bill up for a vote, enough Democrats would support it to advance the measure to a House-Senate conference committee. Democrats made similar predictions when they demanded that Boehner schedule a House floor vote for a bipartisan highway funding measure passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Transportation Bill

The transportation measure passed by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee didn’t come to a vote on the House floor because Boehner couldn’t get enough backing among Republicans to pass it without widespread Democratic support.

Instead, House and Senate negotiators struck a compromise and on June 29 both chambers passed a 27-month, $94.3 billion extension the day before highway programs were set to lapse.

House leaders “pulled a rabbit out of a hat,” said Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole.

The committee-passed farm bill is in trouble because a growing number of lawmakers in both parties resist “lavishing massive support on parts of agriculture that don’t need it,” said Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer. The House may be “reaching a point that there is critical mass on the House floor to resist that,” he said.

Walz said he was “torn” and may vote for the stand-alone drought relief measure because he doesn’t “want to leave our producers hanging.”

Conservation Programs

Many Democrats are balking at cuts in conservation programs needed to raise the $383 million to revive the livestock assistance program that expired last Sept. 30 and extend it through September 2012, he said.

Some freshmen Republicans were “calling it a bailout,” Walz said.

After scrapping a plan to seek a one-year extension of current farm programs, House Republicans then turned to the stand-alone drought measure.

Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Agriculture Committee, said yesterday that support in his party’s ranks for drought assistance was “building.”

Lucas told reporters he still would like to see passage of a five-year farm bill. “There will be a farm bill and I have worked very hard to remind everyone in this chamber about that,” he said. The only question is “when it will happen,” he said.

Asked whether party leaders supported his goal, Lucas said, “Leadership is supportive of addressing the drought disaster equation right now. That’s the first step.”

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rowley in Washington at jarowley@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider at jschneider50@bloomberg.net


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