The Little Engine That Couldn't

UPDATE: Today at Farm Policy, Dan Morgan analyzes the week's activities in the House. He notes some of the partisan tones surfacing and again points out that there really is not any less money to work with in this farm bill as compared to 2002, despite the oft-repeated claims of Ag Committee members. It's a good read, and it ends with this politically astonishing quote from Chairman Peterson:

Peterson himself acknowledges that southern agriculture must change: “We probably should be producing less cotton,” he said.

That, my friends, is not the way to endear yourself to cotton interests and cotton-state lawmakers. If you needed more proof that Peterson is truly angry with the unreasonable stands taken by the anti-payment limitations crowd, this is it.

Read the whole thing here.


Original Post: For a month or so, the House Agriculture Committee has been chugging along at a respectable pace, approving various subcommittee drafts to be sent to the full committee for consideration. At the very beginning, there was a big stink over funding for conservation and especially the Conservation Security Program, a favorite of Senate Chairman Tom Harkin. House Chairman Collin Peterson wanted to give it the axe, but faced with a strong backlash from both committee members and people like you, he backed down. But not without some hurt feelings and sniffles all around, though. The whole thing emphasized how tough it would be to write the farm bill within the current budget constraints.

With that (temporarily) resolved, the rest of the subcommittees proceeded with their work in a relatively calm and certainly predictable fashion. By which I mean boring, and everyone knew the really tough fights wouldn’t start until full committee June 26th. Last Tuesday, the House Commodity Subcommittee was scheduled to “mark up” and send the commodity title (that big thing with farm subsidy programs) to the full House Committee for next week’s big drama. . The commodity title is certainly the most controversial and attention-getting part of the farm bill, but hey, this is only subcommittee and Collin Peterson can force them to approve his version of the commodity title. The real action is in full committee, and this will be a snap. Right?

Wrong. During the hearing, the whole House of Representatives farm bill process went off the rails and it’s hard to see how it could come back in a timely fashion.

What happened has been covered well in a lot of places- over at Mulch, Ethicurean (twice!), Brownfield, Farm Policy.

Basically, after some political grandstanding involving the offering of reformist amendments simply so they could be voted down, the subcommittee moved on to some real business, and weird things started to happen. Instead of passing Peterson’s commodity title proposal, an amendment was offered to simply extend current commodity programs for the life of the next farm bill. And somehow, it passed, an almost unheard of rebuke to the Chairman. There’s even a writer who says “Word is he never saw it coming”, which is nearly impossible to believe. At the very least, the fact the vote was unanimous indicates that Peterson did not oppose the extension. And in a little tidbit I’ve only seen noted in a couple of places, the subcommittee then proceeded to approve several amendments that actually made changes that mirror items in Peterson’s first proposal.

But now that we’ve had a couple of days to reflect (and read a few more news items), we can see that Peterson quite simply did not have the votes to pass his preferred commodity title. And what that means is the big commodity groups would not support what Peterson was proposing. Essentially, the wheat growers were unhappy because they didn’t get more money. And the cotton and rice types vehemently opposed even the completely weak and ineffectual payment limits proposal put forth by Peterson. And with three of the big five commodities standing firm in opposition to his proposal, Peterson knew he couldn’t win. So he allowed an extension of the commodity title, but he also made sure that non-controversial elements of his own proposal were immediately added as amendments.

Given the ever-increasing fervor for wholesale farm program reform, passing an extension means Peterson is courting a serious fight on the House floor. And Peterson is perfectly aware of this:

Last week, Peterson said “it’s not sustainable for us to go to the floor without some changes” in payment limits.
But commodity groups have balked at even minor changes, and Peterson said Thursday that the payment limit issue was a key reason that a subcommittee voted this week to extend the existing subsidy programs for another five years.

And then today Peterson said the following, and everything began to make sense:

House Agriculture Committee Chair, Collin Peterson, says he supports the action of a subcommittee this week that voted to continue the current commodity title through the next farm bill. “I think the committee sent a resounding message to the so-called reformers that they’re not ready to go there yet.” Peterson says the biggest problem with the reforms was payment limits. The Minnesota Democrat says he does not favor payment limits and until the cotton, rice and peanut growers tell him differently, he will not, “Go down that road.”

On one hand, Peterson says some sort of payment limits are absolutely necessary to get what he considers a decent farm bill past the House floor. On the other hand, he says he doesn’t like payment limits and won’t do anything about payment limits unless the groups currently opposed to them change their tune. And that's the key.

Clearly Peterson is not happy. He is saying that they must do something on payment limits to get any farm bill at all, but the second quote is really Peterson laying down the law. He is saying that the groups that oppose payment limits must come to him with THEIR ideas, and that he’s tired of trying to placate everyone. And he’s implying that if they continue their intransigence, he probably will not do anything to stop reform bills from being offered on the floor.

But no matter what happens, Peterson doesn’t look good. The full House Agriculture Committee has postponed its consideration of the farm bill from June 26th to the week of July 9th, and you can almost guarantee the goal of having something to the President by September 31st went out the window right there. The committee is a mess, and now they’re all running scared because of Rep. Ron Kind. Some quotes:

If the Ron Kinds and other reformers of the world are successful, what they will do, in my opinion, is destroy agriculture.”- Collin Peterson

It’s a threat to everyone,” he said. “I’m frightened as to what Mr. Kind can do to rural America on the floor of the House.”- Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK)

I do not blame the democrats on the committee for the circumstances we find ourselves in, I blame the Democratic leadership and the budget committee…

the Democratic leadership has turned its back on Rural America and America’s farmers and ranchers.- Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Ranking Member (R-VA)

So what will happen? I’m guessing that there will be a big sit-down with representatives from commodity groups, the House Agriculture Committee, and maybe even some of the Democratic leadership in the House. If the Committee wants to get a farm bill that reflects their priorities, they absolutely must get everyone on the same page.

And of course, the big question is how does this affect the work of those trying to make sure this farm bill helps small and mid sized family farms and strengthens rural communities? It is very difficult to tell. The farm bill that has been put together by Chairman Peterson’s committee so far is not at all impressive. In fact, the entire House farm bill looks like an extension of the 2002 farm bill with some relatively minor tweaks. So anything that slows down a bad farm bill is good news.

On the other hand, this introduces a lot of unpredictability and certainly heightens the potential for other negative outcomes. Who knows when they’ll actually get to full House Agriculture Committee consideration? In its current state, I think the House farm bill would have a good chance of drawing a veto from President Bush. Also, if there is a knock-down drag out floor fight the House leadership could simply pull the bill in an attempt to avoid a prolonged argument within the Democratic Party. Either of those scenarios could lead to an extension of the current farm bill for a year or two.

But hey, maybe Peterson will have it all figured out tomorrow. I just hope the next time the House or Senate Agriculture Committees want to pull this sort of stuff they’ll be considerate enough to let me know in advance.


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