The House on Wednesday approved a mammoth $956 billion farm bill in a bipartisan vote.
Members approved the House-Senate agreement on farm policy in a 251-166 vote. A majority of Republicans backed the bill, with only 63 voting "no." But a majority of Democrats opposed it, with 103 voting against.
The conference report to the bill, H.R. 2642, was agreed to earlier this week, and seems likely to end what has been a three-year effort to reauthorize and alter federal farm and food stamp programs.
The Senate is expected to approve the package, and White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday that if the bill “as it is currently designed” reached President Obama's desk, “he would sign it.”
Still, the compromise doesn't offer the breadth of reform that many were seeking, and in some ways seemed more designed to get the process out of the way for the 2014 election.
In 2012, the House was unable to act on a farm bill at all, creating an awkward situation for some Republicans running in agricultural states. Congress was forced to extend farm programs for another year on the last day of 2012. A version of the farm bill failed spectacularly on the House floor in June after Democrats balked at a food stamp work requirement amendment. That led the GOP to split the bill and double the cuts in the food stamp portion to pass a GOP-only bill.
A majority of the spending in the bill is for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), informally called the food stamp program, and much of the Democratic opposition came from members who opposed the $8 billion cut to the program. The original House proposal would have cut $39 billion from food stamps, while the Senate-passed bill called for a $4 billion cut.
“This bill will make hunger worse in America, not better,” said Rep. James McGovern (Mass.), who has led the House Democrats’ charge against cuts to the program. “If this bill passes, thousands and thousands of low-income Americans will see their already meager food benefit shrink.”
The bill finds $8.6 billion in savings by requiring households to receive at least $20 per year in home heating assistance before they automatically qualify for food stamps, instead of the $1 threshold now in place in some states.
Supporters of that change say it's a minimal adjustment, but many Democrats said the cut is unkind given the benefits given to wealthy farmers under the bill. Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and others noted that while the bill ends direct payments to farmers, it extends what they said is an already generous crop insurance program.
“Rather than looking at another $8.6 billion in cuts to the nutrition title, on top of previous cuts that have already been had, let's look at some of these subsidy programs,” Kind said. “I'm afraid that the bill before us today maintains huge taxpayer subsidies that go to a few but very large agri-businesses, at the expense of our family farmers around the country.”
While dozens of Republicans opposed the bill, none argued against it during debate, perhaps in part because Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said they support it.
In addition to the House leaders, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) voted for it, as did Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said the bill would not have passed without the efforts of Pelosi to win over Democrats.
“She really worked the bill,” he said.
In June, only 24 Democrats voted for an earlier version of the farm bill with slightly more food stamp cuts. The lack of support brought the bill down.
But many Republicans were disappointed at the relatively small savings in the bill. After the House GOP budget called for $160 billion in cuts to the farm and nutrition titles, GOP leaders settled for $23 billion in cuts in the final agreement — this week, the Congressional Budget Office said the savings would be even lower, just $16.6 billion over a decade.
Some Republicans wanted to permanently split the two issues of commodity and nutrition programs. Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) had pushed for separate bills, or at least different authorizing periods for these two aspects of the program, in order to let Congress more carefully consider both programs separately.
Earlier this week, Stutzman said he wouldn't be able to support the final bill, which lumps the programs back together.
“The farm bill conference report is just more business as usual and reverses the victory for common sense that taxpayers won last year,” he said. “This logrolling prevents the long-term reforms that both farm programs and food stamps deserve.”
Republicans who spoke during today's floor debate gave credit to farm bill negotiators for finally reaching an agreement, and registered mild disappointment that the bill failed to resolve other issues plaguing farmers and ranchers.
Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said the bill does nothing to bring U.S. country of origin labeling rules for meat into compliance with international trade rules. U.S. labeling rules have been challenged by Canada.
Womack and others also said Congress must take steps to rein in the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration, which is threatening to enforce regulations that chicken processors say are too onerous.
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said that while many criticize Congress, the long back-and-forth that allowed the farm bill to be written is the way Congress needs to work on difficult issues.
“Whatever your feelings might be about the policy issues involved within the bill, understand, this formal conference that's now come to a conclusion ... reflects ... how legislation should be put together,” he said.