Farm Bill Could Pass the House Next Week, Agriculture Committee Chairman Says

Jerry Hagstrom
National Journal

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said Thursday he believes that the farm bill will come up on the House floor next week and be finished in two days—assuming the whip count shows that he and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., are close to the 218 votes they need for final passage.

“I feel better now than at any time I’ve felt in a year” about convincing a majority of the House to vote for the bill, Lucas told the Oklahoma Farm Report, a radio program. But he added, “I don’t expect to go to the floor if we’re not there with the 218 votes.”

In a further indication that the farm bill is moving forward, the House Rules Committee sent out a letter to members Thursday saying the deadline for amendments on the farm bill is Monday at 2 p.m.

Lucas said he has already met with the Rules Committee and asked that it adopt a rule providing for “open discussion” on all issues that members want to bring up, but with only one or two amendments allowed per subject. Earlier this week, Lucas told the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives that he believes the number of amendments that will be brought to the floor will be between 30 and 40. Under this scenario, the debate on the bill on the floor would begin Wednesday or Thursday, Lucas said.

Lucas said he is optimistic about getting the votes because members understand that if a new farm bill is not passed, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP or food stamps, is permanently authorized and would continue while farm programs will expire and outdated laws from the 1930s and ’40s will take effect.

“That’s not in the consumer’s best interest or rural America’s best interest,” Lucas said. After hearing his explanation, members of his caucus “are truly warming up” to writing a new farm bill, he said.

A “good, straightforward debate,” he added, “can create a consensus.”

Noting that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said this week that he will vote for whatever bill the House produces, Lucas said he too will support “the will of the body.”

Meanwhile, congressional and specialty-crop industry sources said that Democratic leaders are trying to convince members who are distressed by the proposed $20.5 billion cut in food stamps over 10 years that they should vote for the bill because it contains provisions that would help the fruit and vegetable industry and, in turn, help fight childhood obesity. The specialty-crop provisions in the House bill are better than the Senate bill, one Democratic aide said. Antihunger advocates also met with aides to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Thursday to urge her to try to keep food-stamp cuts to a minimum.

Lucas said that he expects provisions to cut crop-insurance spending to be part of the floor debate. He acknowledged that the payouts last year due to the drought make crop insurance look very expensive, but he said he will argue that over the past 10 years the crop insurance program has been “a bargain.”

Lucas said he believes the farm bill “should follow production” and that proposals to limit crop-insurance aid for large producers are part of “cunning, crafty efforts” to allow the Agriculture Department “to tell rural America how to live and how to farm.”

If the bill passes, Lucas predicted that in the conference between the House and the Senate, “95 percent of the issues we can sort out in a hurry.” He said he works well with Peterson and found Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., “a very hard working, hands-on senator” when they tried to write a farm bill in the super-committee deficit-reduction process two years ago. Lucas added that he has established a relationship with Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., since Cochran moved to the slot this year.

But he said agreement on the size of the food-stamp cut would be difficult and perhaps could not be done “without help,” which appeared to be a veiled reference to lobbyists’ theory that Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and President Obama will have to settle the issue.