Ugliness of the Farm Bill Continues

By Steve Kopperud, Policy Directions, Inc.

Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, it doesn’t appear Congress has its act together any better now than it did six months ago, and the actual effect of legislating is pitifully meager. The available days to legislate this year are quickly disappearing, putting the respective fates of the Senate farm bill and the conference committee action on the omnibus energy package seriously in doubt, at least until 2008.

The farm bill, with its energy title that would funnel billions of dollars to alternative fuel research, non-corn “cellulosic” fuels, loans for refinery development, and so on, is a wild card at this writing. The Senate Finance Committee package designed to pay for much of the farm bill, and which carries extensions for several currently enjoyed tax incentives for alternative fuels, is also in limbo until the farm bill is finished, as the plan is to roll the finance package into the farm bill at the end of the debate.

The respective party leaders in the Senate – Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) – are in a major partisan tug-of-war over how the Senate farm bill will be debated and how many – and which – amendments will be deemed “in order” for inclusion in the committee’s bill. Reid sought to invoke early a rarely used procedural gambit to limit amendments to only those deemed germane to the underlying bill; McConnell argues that the Senate traditionally does not limit amendments, so his folks – and a fair number of Democrats – should be able to bring “any and all” amendments to the floor. Reid’s latest offer is that both sides would be able to offer five germane amendments to the bill, along with one non-germane change, and he says he’s willing to look at giving the GOP two unrelated amendments in order to jump-start the process.

So far, nearly 250 amendments have been filed on the 1,600-page farm bill, most of which have nothing to do with ag policy and everything to do with “fixing” problems with previously passed legislation, including the alternative minimum tax, immigration, and energy amendments. Not all of these would be debated under an open rule, with some non-controversial items accepted by Harkin and committee ranking member Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) up front with no debate, and others filed simply so members can get up and rail about their particular favorite issue, only to withdraw the amendment at the end of the speech. The problem is that such theatrics suck time.

It’s ironic that Reid was pushing Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, as early as last spring to have a farm bill ready to go to the floor before the July 4, 2007, recess. Then it was supposed to be ready before they adjourned for the month of August, and now it’s anyone’s guess whether it will be completed before the Senate recesses some time in early to mid-December.

So, where’s my money? I’m predicting a Solomon-like deal cut between Reid and McConnell that will limit amendments – not the “y’all come” approach McConnell advocates, but far more than Reid would like to see. Who makes the cut is anyone’s guess, that status relying on behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing. The funny thing here is that depending on the amendments, the debate could be just as long and ugly, saving little or no time in the overall scheme of things.

The farm bill could – notice I’m not saying “will” – be off the floor by the time the Senate recesses in December. The target is the first week in December, but Reid has told his committee chairs he’s willing to hold the chamber in session until December 21. Further complicating the farm bill scenario is the long list of other legislation with which the Senate must deal, including spending bills President George W. Bush has threatened to veto over their price tags, along with Iraq war funding and other legislation.

On the energy bill side, it’s not time that’s the enemy, but a lack of political will to move the conference committee action forward. The ugliness started once the Senate passed its energy bill last summer. More far-reaching than the House version, it includes controversial sections on automobile/truck fuel efficiency standards, changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard that favor ethanol, mandates on wind and energy generation, and other items avoided by the House.

These packages – to one degree or another – also carry extensions for the alternative fuels tax credits, including those for agro-biodiesel and biodiesel, as well as renewable diesel, along with technical fixes of previously passed issues.

But House Democrats were unwilling to move to conference on the issues they so strenuously avoided during their deliberations, and this led to a controversial move by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who said she’d meet with Senate Majority Leader Reid and they’d rewrite the bills, avoiding a formal conference committee. The plan was to rework the bills and bring identical bills to their respective chambers for up or down votes – no amendments allowed.

With crude oil prices pushing $100 a barrel, Pelosi is taking serious heat from not only House Republicans, but many in her own party for her edict on avoiding conference. Since she issued that fiat, little substantive progress has been made on the bills. However, Pelosi continued to say, “I would like to do it before we leave [for Thanksgiving recess], but I don’t know if it’s possible to do it.”

Her answer came swiftly from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), who said it would be nearly impossible to get an energy bill onto the Senate calendar before the two-week Thanksgiving recess, and that it looked seriously iffy the Senate could tackle the issue in December. Some Senate insiders said flat out that if a deal were reached tomorrow, there’s no room on the Senate calendar to move the bill quickly.

Insiders contend Pelosi and Reid will likely have some form of dramat-ically scaled-down energy package ready to hit the floor in December. House Republicans contend the Democrats will no doubt fashion a bill that will accelerate oil price increases by eroding progress made in the hard-won 2005 Energy Policy Act that was designed to increase domestic energy production.

Politically, Pelosi and Reid cannot afford to go into 2008 with no energy accord. To face an electorate that’s paying nearly four dollars a gallon for gasoline without an omnibus energy bill that seeks to control those costs would be a serious political liability for both House and Senate members up for reelection, but also for the Democrat presidential candidate. At last count, less than 19 percent of the public thought Congress was doing “a good job.”

View From Washington – December 2007 RENDER | back