FARM AND FOOD FILE
Every July, Congress begins to pack its collective bag to escape the scorching heat and suffocating humidity of Capitol Hill. And that’s just inside the Senate and House; outside it’s even worse.
Trapped in this year’s pressure cooker is the 2018 Farm Bill. While the Senate and House each passed their versions earlier this summer, neither is in a hurry to stir the two together before leaving town.
Part of the problem is the chambers’ competing calendars. House members plan to leave for “district work” July 28 and not return until Sept. 4. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, however, announced June 5 that he would keep the Senate in session most of August to address what he called the legislative backlog his Democratic colleagues caused by their “historic obstruction.”
Baloney. McConnell’s real goal is to keep Senate Democrats off the campaign trail for an entire month in the 10 very “red” states won by Donald J. Trump in 2016. That break may be all the crafty Senate boss needs to electorally wound a Dem or two in the middle of a close race so he might add to his current one-vote majority.
All that Senate sitting, however, will not advance the Farm Bill one inch. Here’s why: First, the joint Senate/House conference committee required to “reconcile” the different bills is just now getting organized.
The slowness isn’t Democratic obstruction; it’s Republican disorganization. Few in the GOP-led House are in a hurry to move a bill that failed its first vote and squeaked by on its next.
Second, even if the conference committee is named, seated, and meets before the August break-a tight, but doable schedule-its task hits a wall when the committee’s House members head home for a month just days thereafter.
That means “there won’t be any meetings of conferees,” during August, explains an experienced Farm Bill watcher, but there will be “an “occasional meeting of the Big Four”-the chairmen and ranking members of the Ag Committees-“behind closed doors.”
Open or closed, everyone needs to hurry because one month later, on Sept. 30, the 2014 Farm Bill expires.
If all this sounds familiar it’s because it is almost exactly how the 2012 Farm Bill became the 2014 Farm Bill: two far-apart bills sleepily tackled by a slowly convened conference committee that was then interrupted by the no-action August break which led to a difficult reconciliation process stymied by House GOP hardliners who demanded work requirements for some food aid recipients.
The standoff continued through the 2012 November election and into the seating of a new Congress in early 2013. By law that meant the 2012 Farm Bill process had to start over which it did and, finally, 18 months later, the 2014 law was passed.
That same pattern is emerging again because of the canyon-wide differences between the two bills. Again, food aid changes demanded by House Republicans face a unified wall of Senate opposition. Again, cuts to conservation programs and the removal of virtually all program payment limits in the House bill face strong opposition by key Senate negotiators.
With these clear differences deeply rooted, are 2018 Farm Bill talks as doomed as the 2012 effort? Not yet, but every passing day makes it increasingly likely.
Unlike 2012, however, today’s legislative lollygagging is occurring as White House-imposed trade tariffs, fast-swelling crops, and increased livestock production are quickly taking many commodity markets to 10-year price lows.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has suggested he will tap the department’s Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC) to buy up commodities to prop up market prices. Currently, CCC has authority to borrow up to $30 billion for the effort and, according to some, Perdue has an almost unlimited, unchecked power to borrow even more if he deems necessary.
Holy smokes; the CCC spending $30 billion? Maybe it’s not 2018 or even 2012.
Maybe it’s 1933.
The Farm and Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada. Past columns, events and contact information are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.
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