WOOSTER, Ohio — The House’s June 20 defeat of the farm bill raises some interesting questions about where the bill goes next.
The 195-234 vote against the bill puts a damper on what most farm organizations were hoping would be a milestone toward a new five-year bill.
The House Agriculture Committee could write a new bill for the House to vote on, the House could take up the farm bill the Senate passed June 10, or it could try to extend the 2008 farm bill again, following a nine-month extension that began in January.
A new farm bill likely won’t pass until legislators are able to cobble together a majority coalition in a politically divided Congress, which in turn reflects a divided country and a divided farm bill constituency, said Carl Zulauf, an agricultural economics professor in Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
Many Democrats who voted against the bill were concerned about the $20.5 billion in cuts to SNAP and other food nutrition programs, which is about five times as much of a cut to SNAP than the Senate bill. Republicans voted no because of concerns about the cost of the bill, which will cost about $500 billion.
“It’s not clear why individual members voted against this bill — the SNAP program was an issue, as was cost,” Zulauf said. “But in my experience, few legislators vote against a bill for a single reason.”
Chris Galen, spokesperson for National Milk Producers Federation, said there’s a lot of uncertainty at this point, but noted the same observations as Zulauf. A big concern for NMPF is that the House approved an amendment to essentially strip the Dairy Security Act language, which would have given dairy farmers margin protection and some price stabilization options.
Prior to the vote, House Speaker John Boehner sent a pointed letter to lawmakers urging them to support the amendment, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. and Rep. David Scott, D-Ga. Boehner said the nation’s current dairy programs are “Soviet-style” and “in dire need of reform.”
He wrote, “Today, the government runs a complex and costly maze of dairy programs designed to keep prices high. Minimum prices for milk are set by Washington, not the market, and in many districts are still based on how far one is from Eau Claire, Wisconsin — an absurd holdover from the Great Depression.
“None of this bureaucracy comes cheap. Taxpayers have shelled out $5.44 billion for dairy programs since the 2002 Farm Bill (which I voted against). And staples like milk, butter, yogurt, and cheese all cost families and small businesses more than they should.”
Galen said NMPF was disappointed in the amendment, but said he was not surprised by the House speaker’s stance, which has usually been to protect dairy processors, who benefit by purchasing low-priced milk.
“He’s (Boehner) never really sided with dairy farmers when it comes to choosing between processor and farmer groups,” Galen said.
Toward the end of his letter, Boehner states “The bottom line is this: The federal government doesn’t control the supply or price of bread, clothes, or cell phones — it shouldn’t be doing so for milk.”
But dairy farmers have often challenged that logic, saying their industry is more vulnerable to market changes because it takes years to adjust. For instance, they cannot stop milking their cows when the market is low, or expand their operation overnight when prices are favorable.
Rural and urban
As always, the farm bill have to become something that serves both rural and urban interests. Some policymakers have argued the food stamp and nutrition program should be separate from the farm programs.
But, as Zulauf points out, that could put the farm programs at risk of not passing.
“I raise caution against separating the bill because as it stands, it makes the connection between farming and the consumption of food,” Zulauf said. “Also, if you remove nutrition programs from the farm bill, will there be enough interest from legislators who don’t have farming interests in their communities to get a farm bill passed?”