It is official- The House Conservation Subcommittee's mark of the 2007 farm bill Conservation title will not include any money for new Conservation Security Program sign-ups for the next five years. The mark will now be sent to the full House Agriculture Committee, where the next opportunity to find money for this vital program will occur.
New York Representative Kirsten Gillibrand offered an amendment to provide the needed funds, which would have come from the $20 billion "reserve fund" that the Agriculture Committee controls (see this post for more). Despite the fact that the reserve fund money doesn't really exist, many representatives on the Ag committee were planning on doing the same thing for their various priorities.
Getting such an amendment at the subcommittee level has several advantages:
- First, it gets the subcommittee on record as supporting a program or priority.
- Second, it gets the legislative language you want into the farm bill draft in case you can find money later.
- Third, if the reserve fund ever does actually materialize you're hopefully in line for for some real money.
- Fourth, and maybe most importantly for the politically concerned, it allows a representative to claim they have addressed a problem or concern of their constituents- the old "we did the best we could and if we can find the money you have my assurances that this will get funded" line. For politicians, this is really important.
- Fifth, spending out of the reserve fund would allow them to avoid the nasty decisions they would have to make if they had to cut one program to fund another.
But in the other big news of the day, that strategy went down in flames and there are some really angry Agriculture Committee members right now. Monday, Chairman Collin Peterson told committee members that he has already spent the reserve fund, and they will not be able to amend their subcommittee drafts to access that money. From Congressional Quarterly's Midday Update:
Aides say members of the House Agriculture Committee are unhappy with how Chairman Collin C. Peterson has handled this year’s farm bill so far.
The dissatisfaction intensified last night, aides said, when Peterson told panel members that his draft of the legislation would spend all of a proposed $20 billion “reserve fund” that was meant to pay for new initiatives. The announcement complicated today’s subcommittee markup of portions of the bill....
Peterson, D-Minn., told members last night that he had spread out the $20 billion cushion across the draft bill’s 10 titles, but he would not tell members where it would go, according to aides.
The announcement frustrated both Democrats and Republicans who were counting on those funds to support new programs.
So Collin Peterson has designated where that reserve fund money will go, when committee members had been counting on that money to fund their own priorities. Now they can't, and as a result we have the first anonymous quotes of the farm bill process from within the committee, slamming Peterson. On the first day of subcommittee markup. Not an auspicious start.
But maybe it is for some, says Scott Faber of Environmental Defense:
"The leadership has to provide more funds for conservation ... Today is a good day for those who want to write the farm bill on the floor," said Faber, who is part of a coalition of environmentalists, small-farm activists, fiscal hawks and international development groups who say the U.S. farm program should spend more on stewardship and less on crop subsidies."
You might recall that we put up an extensive post on the prospect of writing the farm bill on the floor.
So how did this all play out today? Kirsten Gillibrand offered the amendment to fund CSP in the hearing today. The subcommittee mulled it over for a bit, then the subcommittee chair asked her to withdraw the amendment, as there was no money to pay for it- real money or imaginary "reserve" money. This process was repeated throughout the day with many amendments, and it looks like it will happen throughout the subcommittee process. The only amendments that will get a vote in subcommittee, it appears, are ones that don't cost any money.
The big below-the-radar news story here could be that Peterson has alienated committee members, and that could influence farm bill politics in the future. From our perspective, anything that could have been done in subcommittee can still be done at the full committee level, even if it is more difficult.
But from Peterson's perspective, goodwill lost and bridges burned today is going to make his job a lot harder down the road. It does not take many Ag Committee members breaking ranks and joining efforts to rewrite farm bill sections on the floor to make a Chairman’s life exceedingly difficult. Of course, he may well be able to mend fences and keep everybody happy. But when you're the chair and the anonymous quotes start leaking out this early, you know there's work to be done.