House panel approves $940B farm bill

The House Agriculture Committee late Wednesday night approved a $940 billion farm bill in a 36 to 10 vote, showing strong bipartisan support.

The bill, expected on the House floor in June, was approved shortly before midnight after a marathon markup session that began at 10 a.m. and which disposed of about 100 amendments.

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Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) touted the fact the bill is scored as reducing the deficit by $39.7 billion over 10 years, and the fact that, unlike in last year's failed effort, he has a commitment for floor time from Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). 

The current farm bill expires Sept. 30, and lawmakers hope to approve a new bill before the August recess. 

"No other committee in Congress is voluntarily cutting money, in a bipartisan way, from its jurisdiction to reduce the size and scope of the federal government. I appreciate the efforts of my colleagues and the bipartisan nature in which this legislation was written and approved. I look forward to debating the bill on the House floor this summer," Lucas said. 

Late in the markup several broad amendments were approved to the bill with far-reaching consequences. 

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One, offered by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), would expressly forbid states from banning the sale of agriculture products from other states based on the means of production. The amendment, which purportedly underscores the right of Congress to regulate interstate commerce, passed on voice vote.

The King amendment is a blow to animal-rights activists because it could cripple laws in California and other states that end sales of eggs from hens in tiny battery cages. The amendment would continue to allow California to stop its own growers from using the cages, but in-state growers could be put at an economic disadvantage if out-of-state growers are allowed to continue selling products made using cheaper cages. 

The blow is the second this week for pro-animal rights groups. The Senate this year declined to include a battery cage rule in its committee-passed farm bill. The rule was developed by the United Egg Producers, who are seeking a uniform and phased-in approach, but opposed by pork and veal producers who fear a slippery slope inviting more regulation in their industries.

A second amendment, offered by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) would criminalize attendance at animal fighting events. It passed on a 28 to 17 votes.

A third late amendment, sponsored by Rep. Vicki Hartzler (R-Mo.), would end a mandatory catfish inspection program that critics say is inconsistent with World Trade Organization rules and will likely be challenged by Vietnam. The program is supported by southern senators including Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and the amendment faces an uphill battle to remain in the final conference bill.

Overall, the farm bill crafted by Lucas and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) cuts $20.5 billion from food stamps, while replacing current direct payment farm subsidies with bolstered crop insurance and new revenue and price based supports. No major changes were made in committee to the nutrition or commodity programs. 

The food stamp cuts saw the most sustained attack during the markup.

Liberal Democrats attempted to reverse the food stamp cuts in the farm bill but their main amendment, sponsored by McGovern, was defeated by a vote of 17 to 27. 

Three Democrats voted to defend the cuts -- ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.).

“I think we’re better than this,” McGovern said.

King countered that the cuts are needed because the Obama administration has engaged in a “concerted effort to increase the dependency class” during a heated debate that ultimately involved dueling citations from the Bible on how to treat the hungry. 

The committee also rejected by voice vote an amendment by Blue Dog Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader (Ore.) to restore some of the cuts by adopting the Senate approach to granting food stamps to heating assistance recipients. The House bill requires individuals to get $20 in heating aid, while the Senate bill requires $10 before food stamp applicants can qualify.

And the panel also rejected a second McGovern amendment tying food stamp cuts to reducing waste in the crop insurance program. 

The food stamp cuts in the House farm bill are $16 billion more than are included in the Senate Agriculture Committee bill, which has $4 billion in cuts. The strong opposition by committee Democrats is a sign that the GOP will not be able to count on a large number of minority votes to pass the farm bill on the floor. 

Chairman Lucas joined with Democrats to oppose conservative attempts to deepen the food stamp cuts, including amendments by Reps. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) and Martha Roby (R-Ala.).

The only significant debate on the commodity title involved a vote to keep a dairy supply program opposed by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Boehner and other House leaders last year kept a farm bill from coming to the House floor in part over the program’s inclusion.

Boehner referred to the complex dairy supply management program in the bill as “Soviet-style.”

The program is crucial to committee ranking member Peterson, however, and his block of rural Democrats that will be needed to pass any farm bill. 

Peterson noted Wednesday that Boehner has been lobbying members to change the dairy program — a sign he could be preparing for a floor fight, unlike last year. 

Acknowledging his need for Peterson’s support, Lucas led an effort Wednesday to preserve the program during the markup. He compared the farm bill to a complex puzzle. 

An amendment to gut the dairy program sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) was defeated on a 20-26 vote. 

“I have to move the puzzle forward ... we have to have a farm bill when all this is over with,” Lucas said. 

Goodlatte argued that dairy should have access to margin insurance without a requirement that farmers participate in a program to limit production. He cited opposition by House GOP leaders to the dairy program as a reason the farm bill failed last year.

“Do we want to run into this wall again?” he said. 

Scott argued that poor communities need lower milk prices, but his argument won over few other Democrats.

Peterson said that chronic overproduction has devastated the industry and that margin insurance without supply management would further encourage too much production and prices too low to be sustainable. 

The amendment was the only major change voted on to the farm bill’s commodity title, which governs farm subsidies. Goodlatte withdrew an amendment to change the controversial sugar program, which provides nonrecourse loans and limits imports. A sugar amendment is expected on the House floor.