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Amendment Votes Show the Way Forward for the Farm Bill

Thursday, June 27, 2013

 

Almost as soon as the gavel came down last week on an historic defeat for the farm bill in the House of Representatives, people started asking: What happens now?

 

  • Will Speaker Boehner and the Ag Committee leadership revise the bill and bring it back for another vote?
  • Will Congress pass another extension of the 2008 farm bill?
  • Will the Ag Committee leadership try to take its failed bill to a conference with the full Senate-passed bill – as happened last year with transportation legislation?

A few days later, we still don’t know the next steps for this nearly $1 trillion piece of legislation.  But looking at the votes on two important amendments provides some clues on how House leaders might move forward.

Numerous media analyses have noted that Rep. Steve Southerland’s (R-Fla.) amendment imposing new work requirements on SNAP (formerly food stamp) recipients apparently cost Democratic votes. Less discussed, though, has been the importance of two other amendments – to reform crop insurance and restore draconian cuts in SNAP funding – that were offered by longtime champions of those two causes.

Rep. Ron Kind’s (D-Wis.) bipartisan amendment, based on the AFFIRM act he introduced earlier this year to rein in the over-generous crop insurance program, would have saved taxpayers more than $9 billion over 10 years by instituting reasonable payment limits and means testing on farmers and by lowering subsidies to the insurance companies. It also would have required the USDA to release the names of farmers who accept crop insurance premium subsidies from taxpayers – including those who receive more than $1 million a year each.

This amendment, which was allowed to come to a vote in part because the Ag Committee leadership didn’t think it could possibly pass, came agonizingly close to doing just that. It received 208 yea votes. And rumor has it that it would have passed were it not for some last-minute arm-twisting by Congressional leaders. As it turned out, the amendment got 13 more yes votes than the farm bill itself did when it went down to ignominious defeat soon afterward.

The other amendment, offered by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), would have restored the deep $20.5 billion in proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), replacing them with cuts to the generous target price program and the Supplemental Coverage Option, which covers the smallest of farm income losses at taxpayer expense. 

This amendment got 188 yea votes, but an analysis of members who didn’t vote suggests that it probably could have attracted at least another 10. A similar analysis of those who didn’t vote on final passage of the full farm bill indicates that there was probably just one more potential yes vote for it in the wings.

Those who want to pass a farm bill would be wise to use these votes as a guide as they try to cobble together a winning coalition. Combining common-sense reforms to the crop insurance program with less drastic cuts to SNAP would save the money needed to help meet deficit-reduction targets, but it wouldn’t do it on the backs of the neediest children and families. The cuts would come instead from the wealthiest agribusinesses, which hardly need the taxpayers’ help to prosper.