By Don Davis
A sharply divided U.S. House passed a farm bill 216-208 today amid complaints that it is the first time federal farm programs have become embroiled in partisan politics.
Its future in uncertain since senators passed a far different bill.
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a western Minnesotan, was upset that the Republican-controlled House stripped food stamp funding from the bill and banned any amendments, including Democratic attempts to reinstate the nutrition funding. He opposed the bill, as did all Democrats and 12 Republicans.
“I’m sorry I have to do that,” said the Democrat, who began drawing up the bill four years ago when he was Agriculture Committee chairman.
“You have now managed to make me a partisan,” Peterson said. “And that’s a darned hard thing to do.”
Democrat after Democrat rose to object to the decision by Republicans who control the House to dump a provision funding food stamps and other nutrition programs for the poor.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said he strongly opposed the move “because it increases hunger in America.”
Republicans said the nutrition portion of the bill still could arise in the House and the topic would be up to House and Senate negotiators to decide before sending a negotiated bill back for a full vote in the House and Senate.
The nutrition and farm programs have been in one bill since 1977 in an effort to get support from both urban and rural lawmakers.
“It violates a decades-old principle that united urban and rural interests together feeding hungry people,” Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., said of the GOP decision.
Peterson said his biggest fear is that the Republican move will mean nothing eventually passes. The farm bill is to fund programs for five years.
“First and foremost, I believe the strategy of splitting the farm bill is a mistake that jeopardizes the chances of it ever becoming law,” Peterson said.
He warned that failure to pass the bill into law would mean much higher payments to milk producers, which would cause the cost of dairy products to soar.
Lack of new farm policy would keep existing laws on the books, which would cost more than the proposed bill in many areas. It also would mean farmers would continue to work under what many call outdated programs instead of a newly written crop insurance provision.
Peterson and Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., told fellow representatives that more than 500 farm, conservation and other organizations asked that the farm bill include both farm and nutrition aspects.
“I am not proud of what you are seeing here today,” Walz said, calling the bill an abomination.
Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., pledged to keep working on funding food stamps.
“The committee will work hard to achieve a consensus on a nutrition bill,” Lucas said, although he admitted that whatever his committee draws up probably will not satisfy the extremes from both political parties.
Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said the farm bill will be negotiated with the Senate, which passed the farm bill with nutrition programs included. He said that means food stamp funds could be included in a final product.
The House nutrition provision, which was dropped, would cut $20 billion from food stamps in the next 10 years. The Senate-passed measure would cut $4 billion.
Debate followed by a day multiple news reports indicating that Republicans did not have enough votes to pass the farm bill.
The combined farm-nutrition bill failed on June 20 after Republicans who control the House tacked on an amendment that Democrats claimed would make it more difficult for some Americans to get food stamps. Several Democrats voted against the bill last month because of the amendment, which defeated it.
Peterson said that if the amendment were removed, the Democrats would return to supporting the full bill.
The bill would cut farm spending by $14 billion over 10 years, chiefly by ending the $5 billion a year “direct payment” subsidy. It would expand the taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance program by 10 percent, or $9 billion, over 10 years, including a provision that would shield crop revenue from drops of more than 11 percent of average.
President Barack Obama wants food stamp provisions added back into the bill and also has problems with the farm programs.
In a statement, the White House said it would veto the 608-page farm subsidy bill because it “does not contain sufficient commodity and crop insurance reforms” and it omitted food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“This bill … fails to reauthorize nutrition programs, which benefit millions of Americans in rural, suburban and urban areas alike,” said the White House. “The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a cornerstone of our nation’s food assistance safety net and should not be left behind as the rest of the farm bill advances.”
Reuters news service contributed to this story.