Rally backing farm bill might be too late

A large Capitol Hill rally organized by the major farm lobbies might be arriving too late to rescue the 2012 farm bill.

The House Agriculture Committee and the Senate have passed five-year bills authorizing hundreds of billions of dollars in spending on food stamps and the farm safety net, but House leaders have not yet shown a willingness to bring a version of the legislation to the floor.

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The impasse in the House has given Wednesday morning’s Farm Bill Now rally a last-ditch feeling, coming as it does after a marathon lobbying effort that accompanied the development of the multiyear legislation.

“We are facing a pretty big mountain here, as far as agriculture goes,” said Phillip Hayes of the American Sugar Alliance.

Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, said advocates are fighting an “uphill battle” that isn’t over yet.

  “We are not satisfied with the amount of grassroots pressure that has come to bear,” Johnson said. “But I would also argue we are not done with grassroots pressure. Maybe that makes a difference, maybe not.”

There is talk in congressional leadership circles of passing a short-term extension of farm policies to buy time for a larger package. Barring that, the Senate might simply pass the limited drought-relief bill that was approved by the House before the August recess.

But lobbyists fear action on a farm bill will be delayed until the lame-duck session, when Congress could wind up cutting farm programs deeply by wrapping them into a package averting $109 billion in sequester cuts.

Rep. Collin Peterson (Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, was pessimistic about the chances for passing a farm bill before Congress leaves town to campaign. He said the pressure brought to bear in lawmakers’ districts has not been strong enough to goad leaders into taking action.

“I don’t see that they have ginned up any fervor in the districts … It is not widespread,” Peterson said.

“This effort should have been made last June or July. That’s when the pressure should have been applied,” added former Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas), now a senior policy adviser at Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz.

Peterson said he believes Republican leaders in the House have firmly decided against a five-year bill. But House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) isn’t giving up and on Monday formally filed the committee report for the five-year bill to the full House.

“My goal remains to get a comprehensive, five-year farm bill on the books … Short of that, extending the present farm bill one year to allow us to get it done is the next best choice,” Lucas said in an emailed statement.

The farm lobbies are opposing a one-year extension or a limited disaster aid bill, arguing either one would sap momentum from the five-year bill. Thirteen major agriculture organizations wrote to Senate leaders on Friday opposing the drought measure.

Peterson said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) could try to move a drought-relief bill if the House-passed version is amended to cover fresh produce.

But Stabenow on Tuesday called the House drought bill inadequate and said GOP leaders appear unwilling to change it. She urged the House to act on a full bill, which would allow for a possible conference committee in October and final votes in November.

“The House has eight legislative days left this month; it can get this done,” she said.

Johnson, of the National Farmers Union, said the five-year bill is superior because it contains at least $23 billion in deficit reduction and does away with direct farm payments that are based on historical rather than actual production.

The main stumbling block for passage remains food stamps, lobbyists say. The Senate farm bill cuts the program by $4 billion, while the House trims $16 billion. Both cuts alienate Democrats who can otherwise be counted on to pass farm bills. 

Some conservatives, meanwhile, want a delay so they can work toward cutting food stamps by some $130 billion by block-granting the program.

The 2008 farm bill expires Sept. 30, adding to deadline pressure, but food stamps will continue and many safety-net programs will not be affected for months. 

Even if Wednesday’s rally turns out a sizable crowd, lobbyists worry that the political forces aligning against them are too strong to overcome.

“I don’t know how much grassroots mobilization can change things,” Hayes said. “Farmers were pretty active in August. You’re facing a political environment unlike any that a farm bill has faced before. … Both caucuses are on the lookout for wedge issues.”

Several lobbyists said Tea Party sentiment runs strong against the bill due to the hefty prices tag for farm programs. The House Agriculture Committee-passed version of the legislation puts the government on a path to spend $957 billion over 10 years.

“I would be surprised if the House Republican leadership feel they have the requisite number of votes to move this bill. It has happened before, but I would be surprised,” said Randy Russell of the Russell Group, a lobbying firm.

Lobbyists said Wednesday’s rally caps a period of intense activity on the farm bill.

“Everyone is in a little disbelief that the gridlock has lasted this long,” said Jess Peterson, executive vice president of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association. “It’s all hands on deck to do everything you possibly can.”

Pam Johnson, a farmer from Floyd County, Iowa, is in the capital this week to attend the assembly and meet with lawmakers.

“We still say that this can be done, and we are still holding everyone’s feet to the fire to get it done,” Johnson said.

Johnson is also first vice president of the National Corn Growers Association, one of several trade groups that is part of Farm Bill Now — a coalition that is hosting the rally and has grown from 39 groups to more than 80.

Johnson rejected the charge that farm groups have not lobbied hard enough to get the bill moving through Congress.

“They are telling us our effort is too little, too late? Their effort is too little, too late,” Johnson said. “I have heard people ask why haven’t they heard of a farmer revolt. Well, farmers aren’t anarchists. Farmers go about their business, and they expect Congress to go about theirs.”