Farm groups struggled with how to react to a farm bill passed in the House of Representatives Thursday (July 11) that separates farm policies from nutrition programs, does not include the Dairy Security Act and repeals the permanent agricultural law that underpins all modern farm legislation.
Many didn't like those aspects of the Agriculture Reform and Risk Management (FARRM) Act of 2013 but were quick to point out that farmers need the certainty that a five-year farm policy package would provide and said this might be a step in that direction.
Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation said he had been hopeful the farm bill would not be split, nor the permanent law repealed, but said his organization would now focus efforts on working with lawmakers to deliver a farm bill to the president's desk in September.
"While we don't yet know what the next steps will be, we will be working with both sides of the aisle and both chambers of Congress to ensure passage of a new five-year farm bill.
Even if they didn't like the legislation itself, many of the farm leaders said that at least passage of something means there's hope that Congress can pass a five-year farm bill this year rather than another extension of old farm policies.
Many in the agriculture community have said that would be unacceptable.
There will be difficult questions in how to reconcile this measure with the Senate's farm bill that was passed in June, which did include food and nutrition programs, an intact Dairy Security Act and didn't touch the permanent farm policy law.
It's unlikely that Senators would go along with the separated farm bill, without its nutrition titles. That sets up a complicated set of conference negotiations that would try to get both houses of Congress together on one measure.
American Farm Bureau lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher notes that the game this time around won't just be passage of a bill. It will also be about the fact that each house will need to make sure it has enough votes to pass the measure once it gets through the conference process.
National Grange Legislative Director Grace Boatright said her organization was happy that the House finally passed a Farm Bill, but added that they had "very mixed thoughts about splitting it from the nutrition title.
"We're still a long way from getting a full five-year Farm Bill. We believe the Senate will not be very receptive to a Farm Bill without a Nutrition Title, which includes food stamps, WIC, and school lunch programs," she added.
For at least 40 years, farm programs and food program spending - the latter of which accounts for 75 percent of the total cost of the bill - have been lumped together to give all Congressional districts a stake in the measure.
Some policy analysts have argued that urban and suburban lawmakers won't have any reason to vote for farm subsidies if there's nothing in it for their constituents.
There were pundits last week who blasted the House's separated farm bill saying that it preserved subsidies for large farming operations while at the same time did not address the growing number of poor and hungry people in the United States.
Margarette Purvis, President and CEO of Food Bank For New York City said that by passing a bill that addresses only agricultural subsidies and not nutrition, the House has put at risk a large number of Americans who rely on food stamps to get by.
"By passing a 'farm-only' farm bill without any clear plan for reauthorization of nutrition programs, the House today has left the fates of more than 47 million Americans in limbo," she said.
"This is a sad statement of the priorities of the leadership of this House of Representatives. We need Congress to pass a farm bill that reduces hunger, not one that puts billions of meals at risk for the most vulnerable among us - especially when need remains so high."
Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat, agreed, saying that by stripping out the farm bill's customary food assistance programs, the bill put millions of children, seniors and other Americans in jeopardy of losing benefits that help provide them with food.
Splitting the farm bill, he said, came as a result of partisan elements in the House Majority who generally oppose the idea of federal food assistance and have been working to get rid of the programs entirely.
When he was in Wisconsin last year, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he saw the link between food production and consumption as an important one that should be maintained through the joining of the farm and nutrition programs in the next farm bill.
Despite earlier statements that splitting the farm and nutrition titles of the bill would "doom" both, House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) said passage of the farm-only bill is an "important step toward enacting a five-year farm bill this year that gives our farmers and ranchers certainty."
Lucas said he looked forward to "starting conversations" with his Senate colleagues "on a path forward that ultimately gets a farm bill to the President's desk in the coming months."
From the Wisconsin delegation, Congressmen Paul Ryan, Reid Ribble, Sean Duffy, Jim Sensenbrenner and Tom Petri - all Republicans - voted for the bill.
The vote for what many have called the "partial" farm bill was along mostly partisan lines with a margin of 216-208.
Ribble, is the state's only member of the House Agriculture Committee and said the robust agricultural economy of northeastern Wisconsin (his district) will benefit from the reforms and policy changes that were included in the bill.
"While it's not a perfect piece of legislation it does make significant advances in crucial areas. We need stability and certainty in all aspects of our economy and this bill will help provide that to the thousands of hardworking farmers, ranchers, and foresters who have been impacted by the inability of Congress to get its work completed."
Longtime observers of the political scene on Capitol Hill were shocked when the House defeated its own version of the farm bill June 20. It was unprecedented for a farm bill to get to the House floor and then be shot down.
Following that defeat House leaders began talking about passing a "farm only" farm bill and farm groups weighed in. A total of 532 regional and national farm organizations signed onto a letter a week before the vote, urging House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to bring the farm bill back for a vote without taking the radical step of splitting the bill in two.
Some farm groups had urged the House to put to a floor vote the bipartisan bill that received support in the House Agriculture Committee last month.
It marks the second time in 12 months that the House was unable to pass a comprehensive farm bill.
Wisconsin Farmers Union president Darin Von Ruden had urged the House to keep farm programs and nutrition assistance together under a single, comprehensive farm bill.
The bill that passed in the House, Von Ruden says "goes in the wrong direction. Separating nutrition programs from farm programs, eliminating 1938 permanent law, and removing market stabilization from the dairy program are deeply harmful to farmers and jeopardize the chances of passing a final farm bill."
BILL DOOMED IN SENATE?
Keeping these programs unified under the farm bill ensures that both rural and urban legislators will retain the motivation to support these essential programs that help both farmers and our less fortunate citizens, he added.
"Splitting the bill removes any incentive for urban legislators to allocate money for farmers - who are not part of their constituency. With the number of farmers decreasing every year, the political reality is that maintaining good farm programs requires urban support," he said.
The bill eliminated market stabilization for dairy, left out critical cost-saving and conservation measures, and failed to re-authorize nutrition programs for the food insecure, he said, adding that the bill also repealed the 1938 and 1949 permanent farm law, striking a blow to farmers' leverage for seeking improvements in farm programs in the future.
"The Republican-dominated House of Representatives turned their back not only on farm families all over this country but on 75 years of good law," said Von Ruden.
"I am especially disappointed with the five members of the Wisconsin delegation who ignored the recommendation of nearly every major farm organization in the nation, which was to keep farm and nutrition programs together."
KEEP THEM TOGETHER
National Farmers Union (NFU) President Roger Johnson said his Board of Directors, acting in its capacity as the organization's Legislative Committee, voted unanimously to maintain its long-time position on keeping farm programs and nutrition assistance as a single, comprehensive farm bill.
"Splitting farm programs and nutrition assistance into two separate bills is a disservice to farmers, ranchers, rural residents and consumers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's efforts to provide safety net programs for both farmers and consumers facing hard times should not be pulled in opposite directions.
"It stands to reason to have one unified piece of legislation that can garner support from members of Congress from rural and urban districts alike to deal with these related issues."
Johnson said it's also a mistake to remove the permanent ag law that was put in place in the 1938 and renewed in 1949. Having that mechanism ensures that farm and food systems are operating as they should. "Maintaining the existing permanent law provision provides an incentive for Congress to be engaged in agricultural policy."
Kind, who represents western Wisconsin, said the 600-page legislation was rushed to the floor late at night without enough time for members to read and review it.
Due to the closed rule that limited debate or amendments, the crop insurance reform offered by Kind (and narrowly defeated during debate on the last farm bill) was not even brought to a vote.
Kind's amendment was aimed at reform of current crop insurance policies to save taxpayers $11 billion over 10 years while still providing a strong safety net for family farmers.
"The last thing our farmers need to contend with is a dysfunctional Congress playing political games with their livelihood," said Kind. "Our farmers need a comprehensive, five-year farm bill, and families in every community across this country need access to basic nutrition. This bill failed on both counts."
The current extension of the 2008 farm bill expires on Sept. 30 and timing is becoming an important issue. Congress has just four weeks in session in July and then stands in recess throughout August and past Labor Day, putting lawmakers in much the same situation they were last year when the House had not addressed the farm bill.
That time frame gives them only three weeks to work on the measure before the current extension expires.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Ag Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) have made it clear they will not support another extension of current law and many farm groups are dead set against it, too.