One thing is sure about the farm bill now if it wasn’t already: Work is going to lapse well into at least next week after the Senate broke again Wednesday without a deal on the amendments that will be considered. With the negotiations dragging, Majority Leader Harry Reid has called for votes on two amendments that are certain to fail, including one proposed by Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that would eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The latter may well be the most popular program in the entire bill. The second amendment, sponsored by Jim DeMint, R-S.C., would convert mandatory funding in the bill to discretionary spending.
Reid, Coburn Spar Over Amendments. CQ’s Ellyn Ferguson caught up with Reid as the Senate was shutting down Wednesday evening and asked him if an agreement was near. Reid smiled and said only, “We’ve been close for two days,” before getting into an elevator with his security detail. You might think Coburn would be happy Reid selected one of his amendments for a vote, but Coburn instead accused Reid of hand-picking “low-priority” issues. Coburn suggested negotiating a package of roughly 40 amendments to be considered over several days, CQ’s Niels Lesniewski reports. Reid responded that Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is working with her panel’s ranking Republican, Pat Roberts of Kansas, to develop a larger set of amendments. Roberts, for his part, described the talks as a “work in progress.”
The stakes for these negotiations are huge for anyone trying to get a vote on an amendment they want, or trying to prevent a vote on one they oppose. Two lobbyists who are following a variety of issues in the bill told me the biggest obstacle is probably not the negotiations over the germane amendments but the differences over what non-germane measures should be considered. (Agribusiness interests are pushing for a vote on regulation of end-user derivatives. Read on for more on that.) “I still am optimistic we’re moving forward on the Senate floor — truly,” one of the lobbyists emailed me. One option Reid still has is to force a cloture vote on the bill.
Meanwhile, there’s no word from House Agriculture on its plans. The committee, which has been waiting for the Senate to pass its bill, has been expected to mark up its version the week after next. Spokeswoman Tamara Hinton says only that nothing has been scheduled.
Senator’s Hand Forced, Sugar Amendment Narrowly Defeated. Sugar producers were the clear winners Wednesday in the Senate, not just because an amendment to repeal their price supports failed, but mostly because senators weren’t voting on an alternative measure that had a better chance of passing. The Senate voted 50-46 to table, or kill, the repeal amendment. Fifteen Democrats, mostly from the Northeast, joined 31 Republicans in supporting repeal. Candy makers and food manufacturers know that their best hope is to roll back some key provisions of the program rather than killing it entirely. But Reid forced the Senate instead to vote on the repeal amendment.
“Right now, we’re watching as you are, and are really hopeful and pushing for consideration” of the second amendment, which like the repeal measure, is sponsored by Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said Jennifer Cummings, a spokeswoman for the Sweetener Users Association. “There’s obviously some hunger or energy behind reforming the program this year. We want to carry that momentum forward.” Shaheen spokesman Jonathan Lipman said she wanted to bring up the overhaul amendment instead of having the vote on repeal but wasn’t given a choice when several senators threatened to derail the entire bill. “So, given the option of a vote on full repeal or no vote at all, we chose repeal. We thought it was important to have a vote so we could demonstrate the growing momentum for ending wasteful and outdated sugar subsidies. We will continue to work with our bipartisan coalition to push for a vote on a reform amendment,” he said.
The sugar program’s supporters argue that it has no real cost to taxpayers and at best a negligible effect on the cost of food. The program, an oddity in farm policy, operates at no direct cost to taxpayers to control U.S. sugar prices by restricting domestic supplies. “It is hard to get lower than zero. Maybe the square root of zero would be lower,” North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad quipped, referring to the fact that there is no cost to the government.
Agribusiness Joins Chamber in Lobbying for Dodd-Frank Relief. The farm bill may be the last, best hope for agribusiness interests and other industries who want to protect end users of derivatives from new margin requirements, CQ’s Benton Ives tells me. Democrats don’t want to open up Dodd-Frank. But the Coalition for Derivatives End-Users, which includes the Commodity Markets Council, Agricultural Retailers Association and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, thinks the farm bill is the only vehicle in town. A letter (pdf) to senators urges them to support an amendment sponsored by Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Mike Johanns, R-Neb., that would explicitly exempt end users of derivatives from margin requirements under Dodd-Frank.
The measure is identical to House-passed legislation, (HR 2682) and it’s one of five regulatory issues that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has demanded the Senate consider on the farm bill. Jess Sharp, managing director of the Chamber’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness, acknowledged Democratic concerns. “Getting someone to step out and support a change to Dodd-Frank is difficult,” Sharp said. “We know it’s a complex equation for members.”
The lame-duck session is another possible opportunity but that period is likely to be dominated by high-stakes showdowns over taxes, spending and, eventually, the debt limit. Finding room on the Senate floor for the derivatives issue would be very difficult. “There are too many eggs in that basket,” Sharp said.
Some Aid Groups Want More Food for Development. A long-simmering debate over the use of U.S. food aid is surfacing again as senators struggle over farm bill amendments. Critics have been pushing Congress to cut back on the amount of food assistance that goes to aid groups to fund development work. The bill would cut the minimum amount of development assistance from the current floor of $450 million a year to $275 million by capping such aid at 15 percent. At the behest of groups such as World Vision and Food for the Hungry, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., is trying to amend the bill to raise the limit to 20 percent. “These are folks who are engaged day in, day out, year in, year out in trying to prevent hunger from occurring or the circumstances which create hunger,” Moran said Wednesday. Cutting their government funding source “makes their job much more difficult.”
Oxfam America opposes the increase and is concerned it could get included in a manager’s amendment or allowed to be offered on the floor, said spokesman Ben Grossman-Cohen. “We think it waters down the reform that was in the version passed out of committee, which in and of itself is just a first step toward what’s ultimately needed.”
Groups Press Senate for Conservation Compliance. Some major environmental groups have signed onto a letter (pdf) urging the Senate to require crop insurance policy holders to comply with conservation rules. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., is sponsoring the conservation compliance amendment but acknowledged this week that it has been difficult to build support. The signees include the American Farmland Trust, Environmental Working Group, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Soil and Water Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund.
Egg Standards Mean War, Cattle Group Says. The cattle and hog industries are trying to round up support to stop Congress from approving standards for the care of laying hens. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., “has declared war on animal agriculture by introducing an amendment to the 2012 Farm Bill that would establish a federal mandate on animal care,” the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said in an alert to its membership. The amendment “will take animal care out of the hands of the experts and give that authority to government.” The National Pork Producers Council, meanwhile, is also urging members to get in touch with their senators. The amendment would implement cage standards worked out between the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States. The National Chicken Council isn’t taking a position.
Some animal rights groups aren’t happy with the bill either, reports foodsafetynews.com. The Humane Farming Association calls Feinstein’s amendment the “rotten egg bill” and took out an ad in The Washington Post that says the measure would “deprive states of the right to enforce anti-cruelty laws which prohibit battery cages.” Priscilla Fera, president of Friends of Animals, said the amendment was “an outrageous attempt by the egg industry and its cohorts to enrich themselves at the expense of laying hens and the public at large.” Such comments hardly help the cattle and pork producers since they make the amendment appear more moderate than they’d like.
Senate, House Split on CFTC Funding. Congressional differences over Dodd-Frank also are playing out in appropriations bills for the CFTC, report CQ’s Kerry Young and Ben Weyl. Senate Appropriations takes up its Financial Services spending bill today that would provide CFTC with $308 million. That’s $103 million more than the agency has this year, and it’s in line with the president’s request. But the Agriculture appropriations bill moving through the House would cut CFTC by $25 million in 2013 to $180 million.
There is one point on which House and Senate appropriators agree: They say the CFTC has not moved as quickly as expected on new rules on swaps. “I would point out that while Dodd-Frank has been law for nearly two years, CFTC still has not defined what a ‘swap’ is,” said Jack Kingston, R-Ga., chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, in a June 8 letter to CFTC Chief Gary Gensler.