House Agriculture Committee Approves Harsh Farm Bill Draft

Months of speculation, gossip, negotiation and probably some fortune-telling culminated in the House Agriculture Committee meeting last Wednesday to markup their Farm Bill draft. We figured on deep SNAP cuts; there were. We figured there would be surprise riders of some sort; there were. We figured the finished product would differ greatly from the Senate’s; it does. As predictable as these things were, I confess it was still personally hard to see these votes on CSPAN and read the fine print on the proposed Nutrition title. Rather than digress further, let’s proceed to a Farm Bill Status Report, shall we?

First, let’s look at some of the big numbers for some high-lowlights:

  • $16 billion in SNAP (food stamp) cuts, which translates to 2 million fewer people receiving the benefit.
  • $9 billion open-ended expansion of crop insurance subsidies. For Big Ag.
  • $6 billion in cuts to conservation programs, as in the Senate draft.

Provisions added through last-minute riders would “gut USDA review of GMO crops” and absolve biotech companies of liability for seed drift. And the organic certification program was repealed. These are provisions likely to survive any passage regardless of any deals on SNAP or crop insurance.

As before, here’s a taste of some others' ongoing coverage:

The Environmental Working Group came out opposing the bill, saying that: “The bill will feed fewer people, help fewer farmers, do less to promote healthy diets and weaken environmental protections – and it will cost far more than congressional bean counters say.”

Tom Philpott discusses the GMO regulation provisions in relationship to others proposed in House Appropriations: “Combined, if passed into law, the two bills would effectively negate any semblance of public oversight of new GMO crops.”

Patty Lovera at Food & Water Watch points out that the cuts to regulation of genetically engineered crops affect an “already insufficient” process.

Now for the billion-dollar question: will this draft actually go to the House floor for a full vote? Prepare for some legislative madness: an extension till 2013 or a timewarp back to 1949 are but two possibilities.

So far, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has no plans to push for a vote prior to an impending August recess. Technically this will be scheduled by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) anyway. Back to Tom Philpott, who shares that despite already-deep SNAP cuts in this draft, “Boehner fears that right-wing reps will push for even deeper SNAP cuts, sparking an intra-GOP fight that the speaker would prefer to avoid.” At this point, it does not seem likely that this bill will come for a vote prior to the September 30, 2012 expiration date.

What would happen then? Most likely, a short extension on the current bill, which would kick this whole process to the next Congress (as in 2013 ) to start all over again—with no guaranties we'll not see similar policy proposals. That extension is critical, because barring a new bill or an extension, we legally time warp it back to the 1949 Agriculture Act (before SNAP, subsidies, crop insurance and many other things).

In the meantime, it’s possible that House Agriculture Committee chairs Lucas and Peterson will succeed in persuading the Republican leadership for a vote—soon. We'll keep you posted.