WASHINGTON — Congress is poised to leave thousands of drought-stricken farmers without critical federal assistance, due to an intraparty war between farm-state Republicans and fiscal conservatives adamantly opposed to further spending.
The fight over drought assistance, traditionally a bipartisan issue, has become wrapped up in Congress’ inability to pass a roughly $500 billion farm bill reauthorization, which funds food stamps as well as crop insurance and subsidies for farmers. Now, lawmakers in both chambers are predicting they will push that bill into the lame-duck session in November or beyond, potentially leaving farmers without relief.
“It’s like they’re juggling plates, and they still have too many plates in the air right now,” House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas said of his fellow Republicans, “but sometimes noise gets attention. We’ll see if there’s enough noise in the countryside.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was more blunt in his assessment of the situation in the House, which he called “a total failure of the leadership … just to walk away from this.”
With members of the House still at odds, the Senate has put its own negotiations on hold.
Farm bill reauthorizations have historically been targeted by conservatives who view the programs as little more than wasteful pork, part of a broader set of criticism in both parties of the government's massive annual payments to farmers. Farm-state lawmakers of both parties, however, argue that funding for the nation’s agricultural industry is necessary to keep the rural economy thriving.
But the focus on deficits and the debt have brought more passion to the issue this year, particularly within the House Republican conference, where thus far Speaker John Boehner has been unable to pull together enough votes to pass a full extension.
“At this point it looks like they’re not going to take it up, and that would be very unfortunate,” Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow told BuzzFeed on Tuesday. “We need a farm bill now.”
Publicly, at least, House leaders insist that there remains a window, before recess next week, within which a deal might be reached—even as that slot is narrows.
“A lot of people have never been through a farm bill, never been through a transportation bill, so you need a little education and work with them on the bill,” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy told reporters this week. “So the time frame might not work to everybody's nature, but it is our intent to get it done.“
Also at issue are potential cuts to food stamps — $4.5 billion as proposed in the Senate, or $16.5 billion suggested by the most recent House version of the bill. Democratic representatives have balked at the latter figure, and have vowed to oppose such savings.
Prior to its August recess, the House approved a $383 million drought-relief package primarily to benefit livestock producers, who otherwise must reduce their herds during droughts. The Senate refused to support the measure due to that limited focus.
Top House Republicans have been engaged in “lively” discussions this week, Lucas said, to try to break the stalemate — but it might be that neither side wins out, for now: With an election looming and members actively campaigning to keep their seats, bills that might foment controversy could be pushed aside until after November, when compromise would be more tenable.
“That might be the best solution,” acknowledged Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune, a member of the chamber’s Agriculture Committee. “But it wouldn’t be ideal.”
Should lawmakers postpone the debate, Thune pointed out, the House would first have to agree to some sort of short-term extension.
Whether the bill is indeed urgent has also been a subject of debate, with some lawmakers, including Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the agriculture committee, saying it would do little harm to punt.
“The problem is for farmers planning their crop without knowing” the outcome of the legislation, Peterson told BuzzFeed. But, he added, “Until May of next year, it’s not a real crisis.”
As Sen. Michael Bennet pointed out Tuesday afternoon, past farm bills have been pushed back with minimal repercussions.
“Farm policy doesn’t tend to be revolutionary,” Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, told a group of reporters.
If there’s any farm policy to speak of, that is.
At a news conference Tuesday morning, as Boehner and other Republican leaders prepared to leave, a reporter shouted one last question.
“Will there be a farm bill?”
Boehner, silent, ignored the inquiry and walked out the door.