By J.T. Rushing, correspondent
WASHINGTON — When they return from their weeklong Fourth of July recess, members of Congress will face a race against the clock to finish the $500 billion farm bill.
The current farm bill will expire Sept. 30 without House approval and a presidential signature.
The Senate’s 64-35 approval of the massive legislation, which is renewed every five years, puts the onus on the House to pass its own bill, which it hasn’t yet started drafting.
The GOP-controlled House Agriculture Committee hasn’t even scheduled its initial meeting on the bill until July 11, and Republicans will almost certainly demand changes to the Democratic-led Senate’s bill.
Add to that the fact that both houses of Congress traditionally take the month of August off — plus the fact that the fall elections will make many members want to be campaigning for re-election back home during September. Any significant differences between the House and Senate bills also will require time-consuming conference talks to produce a final version.
Members of Iowa’s congressional delegation say they will be watching the bill’s progress closely. Democratic Reps. Bruce Braley and Leonard Boswell, for example, will be pushing an amendment to promote rural energy jobs. Braley held 10 listening sessions across Eastern Iowa over the past month.
The amendment would renew and expand agriculture programs that are intended to establish rural energy-based jobs, such as renewing a Rural Energy for America Program that provides financial assistance to agriculture producers and rural small businesses that invest and improve on renewable energy systems.
“I intend to work with my colleagues who work on the committee, and then work with the Rules Committee to get an amendment approved that would include the basic framework,” Braley said. “It has strong
support as a general
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he will be watching to ensure that the House doesn’t follow through on a threat to cut $37 billion from food stamps, which he called “heartless.” He called the program his top priority to stay in the bill, followed by conservation programs.
“If the House insists on making these huge cuts to food assistance, it won’t fly over here,” Harkin said. “It won’t fly with Democrats or Republicans in the Senate. We’ll have to see if the House is more reasonable.”
Yet Republicans say that’s exactly the program they will be targeting for deeper cuts. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, for example, said the bill provides a disproportionate amount of funding for such programs.
“About 80 percent of the cost of the bill is for nutrition spending, and more should be done in that area to help shrink the budget deficit,” Grassley said.
Grassley also said he wants to ensure that an amendment he inserted into the bill survives the House. The amendment establishes payment limits on commodity program payments.
Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, called on the House to pass a long-term bill instead of making temporary, short-term changes, describing it as “one of the most important things Congress has to do for Iowa this year” so farmers have assurance that programs won’t disappear.
“A new farm bill is critical for farmers to plan for the next planting season and know the lay of the land,” Loebsack said. “I urge the House to take action on this critical issue for farmers and communities who are working to feed the nation and boost economic development.”
The proposed farm bill reverses decades of agriculture policy by ending the system of direct payments to farmers, but it improves crop insurance provisions to ensure farmers are protected against losses. It also streamlines conservation programs and contains $23 billion in savings.
Harkin said Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has said she also wants to prevent the House from cutting programs that provide nutrition in the form of food stamps, and she also wants to protect the Senate’s action to end direct payments.