By Don Davis
U.S. House agriculture leaders will try, try again to pass a five-year farm bill.
“It’s been four years and we are not going to give up now,” U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson said Thursday after the House defeated on a 234-195 vote a bill setting federal agriculture and nutrition policy for five years.
Peterson, a western Minnesota congressman and the top House agriculture Democrat, said the bill still could pass if brought back to the House minus Republican amendments tacked on Thursday to restrict food stamp payments and change how the federal dairy program operates.
When amendments began to be put onto the bill, Peterson said, he could see Democrats peeling away. He got fewer than half of the 50 Democratic votes he expected for the bill.
“I warned them and they did not listen,” Peterson said about Republicans who control the House.
He said he and House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., crafted a bill, starting when Peterson was agriculture chairman four years ago, designed to get enough votes from members of both parties to pass. But the GOP amendments were not part of the deal.
Peterson said he talked to Lucas after the vote, but “we don’t have any kind of plan at this point. … This thing got kinda out of control with the amendments that kept coming.”
“We are assessing all of our options, but I have no doubt that we will finish our work in the near future and provide the certainty that our farmers, ranchers and rural constituents need,” Lucas said.
Federal farm and nutrition policy was supposed to be updated last year, but it never reached a House vote. Existing policy then was extended a year, and if no new farm bill passed, Peterson predicted another extension will come late this year.
The House bill was written to save $40 billion over its five-year life, nearly twice as much as senators saved in a farm bill they easily passed last week.
The biggest controversy was about food stamps. Democrats argued that no cuts are warranted, while some Republicans wanted deeper cuts than were in the bill. The final factor that defeated the bill, Peterson said, was approval of an amendment that would have allowed states to require food stamp recipients to work.
Food stamp payments would have been cut $20 billion in the next decade.
Politicians were quick to react.
“I’m deeply disappointed the House has once again failed to provide our agricultural producers with the certainty they need to run their businesses by passing a long-term farm bill,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said.
Added Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat who serves southern Minnesota: “Washington is broken and it’s long past time for folks out here to get things done and stop viewing compromise as a dirty word. This bill wasn’t perfect, but I knew that we could craft a better bill in conference (with senators) if we just got it through the House.”
Doing nothing costs taxpayers and businesses, Walz said.
Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., placed most of the blame for the bill’s loss on Democrats and the White House. President Barack Obama had threatened to veto the bill if it contained deep food stamp cuts.
“House Democrats demonstrated once again their unwillingness to accept necessary reforms to food stamps, even if it means putting every nutrition and agriculture program in jeopardy,” Cramer said.
Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., blamed both sides.
“While a majority of Republicans voted for the bill, there were too many that walked away because it didn’t cut enough, or because it wasn’t perfect enough in some way,” she said Thursday. “And despite the strong bipartisan support this farm bill received a few weeks ago in the Agriculture Committee, only 24 Democrats voted for the bill today, largely because the less than 3 percent cut in food stamps was too much.”
Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat serving St. Paul and suburbs to the east, called the bill’s defeat a “victory against a cruel form of extremism, inflicting hunger on the most vulnerable Americans in order to advance a political agenda.”
The bill often turned to insurance programs to replace direct government payments to farmers.
Peterson said a turning point came as Democratic votes disappeared after a 201-135 vote to reject the bill’s new dairy policy.
The bill would have established an insurance program to give dairy farmers payments when the difference between feed and milk prices narrows, and would have required farmers to limit milk production when milk prices fall.
An amendment House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, supported would have kept the insurance part of the bill, but not require farmers to cut production.
Peterson, who wrote the dairy provision, said the version Boehner supported would allow milk price volatility to continue and force taxpayers to pay more to support dairy farmers.
The Peterson plan was voluntary, and farmers could have stayed out of the program and the government would not restrict their production.