At Last

After Years of Wrangling, Congress Seems on the Verge of Passing the Farm Bill

A joint House-Senate committee has a produced a Farm Bill that reforms subsidies and cuts food stamps but has a real chance of passing both houses.

01.28.14 3:30 AM ET

After years of delays and months of hard core member-to-member wrangling, House and Senate negotiators may have finally produced a five-year Farm Bill that could pass Congress in the next two weeks. If the legislation passes, it will mark a major and rare feat of moving landmark, bi-partisan legislation through the chronically dysfunctional 113th Congress. It will also reform the federal farm subsidies by ending direct federal payments to farmers; avoid the “milk cliff” that would have resulted in skyrocketing dairy and commodities prices; and enact steep, but not fatal, cuts to food stamps for needy families through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). 

Although the Farm Bill has historically sailed through Congress, a conservative rebellion among House Republicans last summer sank an earlier version of the bill, forcing GOP House leaders to split it into two pieces, with agriculture funding moving forward in one bill and nutrition assistance getting slashed by $40 billion in a separate bill. Unlike the House, the Senate kept the bill unified and cut about $4 billion out of SNAP, producing the savings from anti-fraud and abuse measures rather than kicking large numbers of people out of the program entirely.

The House and Senate compromise announced Monday night cuts $9 billion from SNAP over 10 years, twice as much as the Senate number but a fraction of what House conservatives demanded, through a narrow change to the ways a family can qualify for SNAP. Overall it is expected to save $28 billion through cuts to other programs.

Although outside conservative groups like Heritage Action and the Club for Growth are expected to “key vote” against the bill as they did last summer, an agriculture lobbyist with knowledge of the negotiations said the compromise on SNAP is not expected to generate enough conservative opposition to threaten the package. “Leadership is whipping it now, but you haven’t heard anyone screaming about it, so it’s a done deal as far as we’re concerned.” 

SNAP funding was the earliest and widest hurdle for the Farm Bill to clear, but fights between states and even within industries popped up throughout the process and threatened to bring the bill down, with disputes over everything from catfish inspections to cock fighting to meat package country of origin labeling, creating standoffs among conferees. Most seriously, a disagreement between House Speaker John Boehner and the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee over federal insurance for dairy farmers during price drops left Boehner threatening to block the bill he otherwise supported to prevent what he called “Soviet-style price supports.”

But on Monday night, when House and Senate negotiators announced they had come to an agreement on all of those issues and more, Boehner announced his plans to support the Farm Bill for the first time since 1996. “I have voted against the last two farm bills because, in my view, they made farm and food stamp policy worse rather than better. This legislation, however, is worthy of the House’s support,” Boehner said.

In addition to Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), a vocal conservative critic of SNAP funding last year, have both announced they’ll vote for the Farm Bill when the House takes it up this week.

If the bill passes the House and then the Senate, it may be thanks to the legislation’s massive reach into nearly every state and congressional district in America. While Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow highlighted the bill’s benefits for Michigan cherry farmers, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado praised a program to renew funding to Western towns with large swaths of federal land in their tax bases. And after Florida Rep. Southerland’s earlier opposition to the bill over SNAP funding, he put out a press release Monday touting $125 million in the bill for citrus research.