Floor Fight?

The hot news in the farm bill world today is Collin Peterson's insistence that the farm bill will be written only by agriculture committee members- and that he has assurances from the House Democratic leadership that it will stay that way. From today's Farm Policy Update:

“‘People are misguided if they think the farm bill will be written on the floor. . . . It would be a recipe for chaos’ he said” (As specifically reported by CQ’s Ms. Richert). [Full Article Here]

Also, yesterday Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reported much the same thing:

The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee is throwing down the gauntlet to colleagues who want to make major changes in farm policy: Get a committee member to sponsor your ideas or don’t try to push them.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., tells reporters he’s been assured by the House Democratic leadership that the committee’s wishes will be followed on the 2007 farm bill.
That’s a problem for House members such as Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who aren’t on Peterson’s committee but are trying to overhaul crop subsidies and steer more money to conservation, nutrition, biofuels and other programs.
[Full Article Here]

These reports got Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, fairly riled up over on EWG's Mulch blog:

The sprawling, omnibus farm bill will be written in his committee, Chairman Peterson says, and anyone who has strong convictions about any of its important and costly components, from food stamps to trade to subsidies to conservation, ought to have gotten on his committee in the first place. Second option: pass those thoughts onto a committee member. They'll see what they can do.....

And he has said all along that his table is the only table. He says he has the firm assurance of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that the farm bill will be written by his committee, not on the floor. Presumably he means that while the bill will come to the committee of the whole with an open rule that allows amendments, Speaker Pelosi will enforce caucus discipline to ensure the committee's work passes largely undisturbed; ditto for the fruits of conference....

Will Pelosi really instruct--or tacitly signal--Democrats to approve whatever the House Agriculture Committee delivers, sometime this summer or fall? Will she discourage consideration of ideas found in the proliferation of "marker bills" that seek to tighten payment limits; shift billions out of commodity subsidies and into conservation, nutrition and rural development; give fruit and vegetable producers meaningful support; or refashion the farm safety net altogether? Will she say that when it comes to farm policy, the House has 46 members, not 435? [Full Post Here]

Sorry for the long excerpts- Go read the whole thing. Right now. It's that good.

Anyway, this is an excellent example of the political ins and outs of the farm bill that most people don't have the time to comprehend. But I'll try to explain a little bit, because the question of what Speaker Pelosi allows to happen on the floor of the House is perhaps the second-most important question of the entire farm bill process (the first being the budget- how much money is available).

There is, to be frank, somewhat of a tactical split among the organizations working hard to reform the farm bill (through payment limits, more money for conservation, etc.) Especially when it comes to the House Agriculture Committee, which generally isn't as interested in reform as the Senate Committee is. While we all share many of the same basic goals, some groups have decided to spend most of their time trying to convince members of the Agriculture Committee to reform the farm bill, while others have focused on representatives off the committee.

Generally speaking, the representatives off the committee and the groups that support them see the House Ag Committee as too invested in the current system and unwilling to accept the changes necessary to reform the farm bill. This is why you have seen the proliferation of "farm bills" from representatives off the committee- the most notable of which is probably Ron Kind's bill, the Healthy Farms, Foods, and Fuels Act (Kind is also involved in another farm bill proposal that just came out, "FARM 21"). This can generally be referred to as a "floor strategy".

Click to continue reading the full post below...

Organizations focusing their efforts on the ag committee members generally believe that if you can't persuade members of the committee to at least see the need to reform, you'll never win on the issues you care about. Also, when the House and Senate conference committee meets to reconcile their respective versions of the farm bill, only senators and representatives from the ag committees will be present. It often happens that progressive reforms that passed one house or the other disappear in conference, so it is important that the conferees feel some loyalty to any reform provisions. This can generally be referred to as a "committee strategy". In the interests of full disclosure, I will say that the Center for Rural Affairs is generally seen as a group using a "committee strategy."

In reality, everybody uses a combination of these two strategies, and I think that both are necessary for success.

Once a farm bill comes out of the House Agriculture Committee and is sent to the floor for a vote by all 435 members, there will be opportunities for amendments to the bill. This is where the groups pursuing a floor strategy will seek to have their policy options put into the farm bill. Not only that, but the groups pursuing more of a committee strategy today will switch to a floor strategy and try to add in anything they didn't get in committee.

This is where Nancy Pelosi and the House leadership have enormous power over the farm bill. The number and type of amendments allowed is essentially controlled by the House leadership. If Collin Peterson really has an agreement with the leadership to prevent a vote on any meaningful amendments to the farm bill on the floor, then anyone pursuing an entirely floor strategy is doomed. Not only that, but groups with more of a committee strategy won't be happy either, because they know that some fundamental reforms they are committed to simply will not happen in committee and they will have to fight for them on the floor.

So this is a huge deal. If Pelosi blocks amendments on the bill, it is very possible that reforms supported by the majority of the House will not be in the House version of the farm bill because votes will never be allowed. This would be a subversion of democracy- one committee being allowed to write an enormously important piece of legislation without regard to the desires of the rest of the House. In effect, this means that the citizens represented by Ag Committee members will get to write the farm bill- and to hell with everyone else.

Let me go further. If Pelosi blocks amendments on the 2007 farm bill that are supported by a majority of the House, that would be a clear message that the change in leadership in the House means nothing at all; that the Democratic leadership intends to run the House in the same top-down corporate fashion as its predecessors.

Outside of Iraq, The 2007 farm bill will be the greatest test of the House leadership and its stated commitment to allowing a more open and honest political process. As our very own Chuck Hassebrook wrote not long ago:

The new farm bill will be the first in more than three decades to be developed by a Democratic Congress. The party must decide where it stands. Will it govern like it campaigns as the champion of the little guy? Or, will it engage in politics as usual by talking a good line but, in the end, lining the pockets of powerful interests?

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