Updates on the Farm Bill

What is going on with the farm bill? Jennifer M., Pennsylvania

On November 16, 2007, the U.S. Senate essentially voted to kill the 2007 farm bill when a vote to invoke cloture (i.e., cut off debate) failed 55-42. Deliberations began on the Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act of 2007 (H.R.2419) 11 days ago, but quickly came to a screeching halt when majority and minority leadership could not come to an agreement on amendments being offered to the bill.

Major action on the 2007 farm bill started in the House with the Agriculture Committee’s unanimous approval of the bill, which only came after long nights of debate and compromise. The House then passed the bill with a of vote 231-191 on July 27. The House bill includes new investments in conservation, nutrition, specialty crops (fruit and vegetable) and renewable energy production. The bill includes what Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) says is a “critical first step toward reform.” The bill includes several extensions to the 2002 Farm Bill Energy Title and many new energy and energy efficiency programs. Programs include loan guarantees for biorefineries; grants for internships in bioenergy, woody-biomass energy research and demonstration; and several other biomass and renewable energy-related programs.

Official Senate action started on October 4, when the Senate Finance Committee voted 17-4 to approve the Heartland, Habitat, Harvest, and Horticulture Act of 2007 (S. 2242 or “4-H Bill”). This long awaited tax package created a permanent agriculture disaster program, converted some conservation payments into optional tax credits, created incentives for economic development, and expanded and extended tax provisions for renewable fuels. This bill also provided an additional $3 billion in funding for the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee’s farm bill.

Under the leadership of Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA), the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee reported out of committee (on a voice vote) The Food and Energy Security Act (S.2302) on October 25. The $1.1 billion Energy Title in this bill also includes important extensions to the existing Renewable Energy Systems and Energy Efficiency Improvements Program (Sec. 9006), renamed Rural Energy for America Program. Furthermore, this bill included a new program called Bioenergy Crop Transition Assistance; this program will help mitigate the risk for farmers interested in transitioning into perennial feedstocks for power, fuels and biobased products. Sen. Harkin then kicked off floor debate on November 5 with great bipartisan support. In his opening statement he identified and thanked Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and other leading Senators for months of work on the formation of the bill. After a day of these speeches, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) brought things back to reality.

With a little over a month of legislative days left in the 2007 calendar, few of the 12 appropriations bills passed or signed by the president, a huge energy bill pending conference, veto threats from the president on almost every bill going through Congress and several other bills still pending action – partisan party politics took over.

The tick of the political clock was very loud during the debate on the farm bill. While the Senate majority leader said the week would be devoted to passage of the farm bill, the need to pass other significant legislation as well as gridlock over the farm bill interrupted Senate debate several times. With the introduction of amendments that could take up a lot of time on the floor and which did not pertain directly to agriculture, such as immigration, the estate tax, the alternative minimum tax and a renewable fuel standard, the majority leader decided to limit debate to relevant amendments to the farm bill only by filing a request for “unanimous consent” to do so. Unfortunately, for Reid, Ranking Member Chambliss objected. Since in the Senate it only takes one Senator to object to a ‘unanimous consent request’ to prevent the legislation from moving forward Reid had to try another procedure called ‘filling the amendment tree.’ This parliamentary tactic, which any Senator can do and which has been done many times before, blocks all other amendments from being considered unless a “limb” of the tree comes open.

On the whole, this complicated farm bill has had a bumpy ride. In addition to a tight budget year, a short time period for actual debate on the bill, procedural gridlock and an eventual difficult conference, President George W. Bush has threatened to veto the bill. Given all this, it now appears that the bill will not be brought back to the Senate floor this year. The authorization of the current farm bill expired on September 30rd and some members of Congress, such as Representative Jerry Moran (R-KS), are now discussing the possibility of a one year extension. Other lawmakers think a longer term extension (2-years) may be more productive given the complications of an election year on legislative priorities.

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