Can a split farm bill be the solution to the House's failed farm bill attempt? It will be a big question House leadership will have to tackle as it returns from its 4th of July recess.
It's what the far right conservative group Heritage has been calling for, and something it seems House Majority Leader Eric Cantor supports.
Since the House defeated H.R. 1947 on June 20, reports have continually alluded to House leaders considering options to bring back the legislation for debate and another vote on passage, including splitting the bill into two separate measures, one that contains food stamps and other nutrition programs and the other for farm programs.
A broad sweeping coalition of 532 agriculture, conservation, rural development, finance, forestry, energy and crop insurance companies and organizations sent a letter July 2 to Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, calling on him to bring the farm bill back to the floor as soon as possible and do so in a bipartisan way.
"Farm bills represent a delicate balance between America’s farm, nutrition, conservation, and other priorities, and accordingly require strong bipartisan support," the groups wrote. "We believe that splitting the nutrition title from the rest of the bill could result in neither farm nor nutrition programs passing, and urge you to move a unified farm bill forward."
A second from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition [NSAC] — more closely linked to grass-roots conservation and organic foods groups — also urges Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to work together to find some solution that keeps the bill together.”
The House is currently made up of 234 Republicans and 201 Democrats and the magic number for passage remains 218. The farm bill failed by a vote of 195-234.
House Agriculture Committee leaders shepherded the farm bill to the floor under the presumption that Democrats would come on board in support. In the end, they only got 24 Democrats, but at the same token 62 Republicans did not support the bill, including 5 committee chairmen who bucked the leadership.
If the thought is to separate a bill to achieve a more Republican farm only bill and another food only bill, the same players who were successful in thwarting the farm bill in June will again fight for more of the same policy – just split – in any new vote.
"The reason to end this unholy alliance is to have an open, transparent debate on real reforms. To be clear, the House should start over and pursue real, free-market reforms; simply holding separate votes on failed policy is nothing more than a different path to the same failed policies," said Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham.
Brad Lubben, policy specialist at University of Nebraska, confirmed that a farm only bill may give the House a vehicle to get to conference with the Senate to negotiate an omnibus bill. But the problem with that approach is it likely would require legislators to track much further to the right. In the nutrition title that could mean as much as $60 billion in cuts. On the farm side, there likely would be more impetus on reining in costs on crop insurance, something commodity groups have opposed, Lubben noted.
With the issues of reintroducing the House's farm bill with limited debate, the political calculus may be easier to move a farm only bill. "The House Agriculture Committee doesn't want to divorce farm and food. I don't think the final product will actually leave that behind. I venture separating the bills is a strategy to get to conference, not a strategy to get a final bill that is a farm only bill," Lubben said.
He noted that he's somewhat surprised that the idea of two separate bills has as much momentum as it does right now, but he adds he sees it as a short-term strategy, not a long-term one.
Substantial political questions are left in play if the House is just aiming to get to conference, because in conference it will obviously have to play to the left to garner the needed votes there for final passage. "The conference will create a new arena for debate and negotiations amongst leadership to formulate a package with a feasible chance of passage."
It's up to the House leadership to see if they can get the formula right the next time. Otherwise we may be faced with another milk cliff.