Farm bill decision looms for Boehner

Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerSudan sanctions spur intense lobbying OPINION | GOP's 7-year ObamaCare blood oath ends in failure A simple fix to encourage bipartisanship in the House MORE (R-Ohio) faces a crucial choice in the coming days: what to do with the $939 billion farm bill. [WATCH VIDEO]

The bill failed on the House floor last month in a 195 to 234 vote, spurring conservative calls for BoehnerJohn BoehnerSudan sanctions spur intense lobbying OPINION | GOP's 7-year ObamaCare blood oath ends in failure A simple fix to encourage bipartisanship in the House MORE to split the legislation into farm spending and food stamps before it is brought back to the floor. 

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Behind the scenes, the fight over the bill is pitting House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric CantorSpecial interests hide behind vets on Independence Day What to watch for in Comey’s testimony Trump nominates two new DOD officials MORE (R-Va.) against Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). While Cantor wants to divide the bill and cut more spending, Lucas wants to keep it intact with only modest changes.

Boehner is under pressure from all sides.

The Speaker received a letter this week from 532 farm groups demanding he bring the farm bill back to the floor without changes. 

Conservative Tea Party activists, meanwhile, are pushing him to strip out the more than $800 billion in food stamp spending in the farm bill and put it in a separate measure with deeper cuts.


Splitting the bill would risk breaking apart the urban-rural coalition that has ensured passage of farm spending for more than four decades. Conservative activists believe breaking the alliance would allow them to slash two sources of wasteful government spending.

The decision is important for both political and policy reasons.

Politically, the farm bill’s failure on the floor raised questions about Boehner’s ability to lead his restive conference. Questions about the Speaker’s power and influence loom large as Congress moves toward tough votes this fall on preventing a government shutdown and raising the nation’s $16.4 trillion debt ceiling.

On the policy side, the biggest issue is the food stamp program, which is officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and makes up more than 80 percent of the spending in the farm bill.

The House Agriculture Committee bill cut the program by $20.5 billion over 10 years, about $16 billion more than the version of the farm bill that passed the Senate with 66 votes.

The House bill cuts the program mainly by limiting eligibility. First, it reduces the ability of those receiving home heating assistance to automatically qualify for food stamps. Second, it would force potential recipients to apply for food stamps separately, rather than allowing them to qualify for multiple assistance programs at once.

Rural Democrats led by Rep. Colin Peterson (R-Minn.) claimed that around 40 Democrats were prepared to accept the $20.5 billion in cuts with the knowledge that they would likely be reduced in a House-Senate bill conference. 

But before the vote last month, House Republicans approved an amendment from Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) that Peterson said was a poison pill. The amendment would allow states to require adult food stamp recipients to either find work or enroll in job training, and would give states a financial incentive to reduce enrollment.

Only 24 Democrats voted for the farm bill, and conservative defections piled up once it became clear the bill would fail.

Democrats might have some advantage in the food stamp fight because failing to pass a farm bill would not end SNAP. As an entitlement, it would continue after Sept. 30 on autopilot.

The House and Senate farm bills are very similar in how they deal with subsidies, energy, credit, disaster aid, international aid, rural development and conservation. These programs expire Sept. 30 without reauthorization, and farmers say they are struggling to plan with the legislation in limbo.

Both farm bills would generate $40 billion in savings by ending the direct payment program. Farm lobbyists are worried that extending the existing program would leave them at risk of someday having no subsidies at all, since direct payments have, in their words, become politically toxic.

The direct payment program was instituted in the 2002 farm bill in response to pressure from World Trade Organization trading partners who argued that traditional subsidies that varied based on how much farmers produced distorted trade.

The direct payment program is paid based on historical acres of production, not planted acres. Corn producers are by far the biggest recipients of the aid, with wheat coming in second and soy and cotton in third.

While the direct payments satisfied WTO critics, it is one program that just about everyone in Congress agrees should be cut.

Critics have made the program the poster child for wasteful government spending, and note that wealthy urbanites no longer engaged in farming have received the payments.

The budgets from both President Obama and Rep. Paul RyanPaul RyanGOP divided over care for transgender troops Want bipartisan health reform? Make the debate honest again Ex-CBO directors defend against GOP attacks on ObamaCare analysis MORE (R-Wis.) find savings from ending the payments, as does the main House Democratic plan for replacing budget sequestration.

Because of the costs of the new subsidies, the Congressional Budget Offices scores the Senate bill as cutting $17 billion from the deficit and the House bill as cutting $32 billion. Some fiscal hawks say that the estimates are overly rosy and that adverse condition could balloon the costs of the new programs.

The replacement for direct payments has been the subject of fierce battles between northern crops like corn and southern crops like peanuts and cotton. This year, a revenue based insurance program favored by farmers in the North is found in both the House and Senate bills. 

Southern commodity farmers, meanwhile, are pleased that target price-based supports are kept and prices are updated in a way that will likely increase payments in the future.

To satisfy cotton growers, lawmakers included a special program called Stacked Income Protection, and they alone are allowed direct payments during a transition period. The U.S. lost a WTO case with Brazil over cotton subsidies and is paying Brazilian cotton farmers $147 million a year in penalties until the program is changed.

On conservation, the House bill cuts about $1.3 billion more from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Those programs pay farmers not to farm arable land in order to increase natural habitats, and environmental groups want the cuts reversed,

Aside from the main fights over food stamps and farm subsidies, the farm bill is the site of other pitched battles.

Milk producers and dairy-using industries have fought over how to replace traditional milk price supports. Boehner personally lobbied for an amendment on the House floor to remove the supply management provision aimed at boosting milk prices. That amendment passed 291-135.

Another major fight pits sugar users against sugar farmers. An amendment to end the Feedstock Flexibility program, which forces the government to buy up sugar and resell it to biofuels producers, was narrowly defeated in the House on a 206-221 vote.

Finally, the farm bill governs how the U.S. provides food aid. The Obama administration has proposed reforming the program to give the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) flexibility to spend aid dollars by buying food abroad. Critics say the current system, which requires the purchase and shipping of U.S. farm goods, is too costly and actually injures third world farmers by dumping free commodities in local markets.

An amendment by Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Ranking Member Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.) would have allowed up to 45 percent of food aid to be purchased abroad, but it was defeated on a 203-220 vote.