As ag economy looks for stability, Congress struggles to get farm bill back on track

WASHINGTON — Farmers and ranchers could use a little stability these days.

They’re getting whipsawed by the ever-evolving status of international trade negotiations and the back-and-forth battles over ethanol mandates. Crop prices are low, overhead costs high and profit margins tight or nonexistent.

This year’s farm bill was supposed to be a bright spot — until it was defeated earlier this month on the House floor, felled by ideological disputes over food stamps and immigration.

“It was disappointing because we thought the votes were there,” Nebraska Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson told The World-Herald.

Nelson and other Nebraska farm representatives were working Capitol Hill last week, stressing to the state’s delegation the importance of a timely farm bill not just to producers, but also to the lenders who supply their credit.

Agriculture is a key part of Nebraska’s economy, one that stretches beyond the fields and affects urban areas such as Omaha and Lincoln.

The twice-a-decade-or-so farm bill reauthorizes a wide range of federal programs from crop insurance subsidies to rural development efforts. Farm country counts on those programs to help provide a safety net, particularly in times of bad weather and low prices.

At this point, lawmakers are picking through the rubble of the House bill’s defeat and seeking a way forward ahead of a September deadline when the current farm bill expires.

The five House members representing Nebraska and western Iowa, all Republicans, voted for the farm bill. But it garnered no votes from any House Democrats, who oppose the bill’s new work requirements on food stamp recipients.

And 30 Republicans voted against it, including members of the House Freedom Caucus looking to use the farm bill as leverage in their demand for votes on an immigration measure that is focused on border security and enforcement.

“It was a debacle,” Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said of watching the legislation go down.

The Omaha-area congressman said members want to pass both a farm bill and an immigration bill but that tying the issues together was not helpful.

Votes on both are now expected in June, but the outcome remains unclear, and the midterm elections are just over five months off.

Bacon said the immigration measure, written by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., could yet be modified. He praised its approach to security and enforcement but said he’d like a longer-term solution for those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, individuals brought into the country illegally when they were young.

The bill would offer those “Dreamers” protection, but that status would have to be renewed every few years.

“I want a permanent solution for DACA, not a three-year thing,” Bacon said. “But if that’s what we can get right now, I’d like to make sure we give some sense of legal status for our DACA youth. At least this gets us that. But I would prefer something better.”

His opponent in November’s general election, Democrat Kara Eastman, has called for Bacon to sign a discharge petition that would force consideration of another piece of legislation protecting DACA recipients.

More than 20 of Bacon’s Republican colleagues have signed that petition.

“The Dreamers in our district are hardworking, law-abiding members of our community,” Eastman said in a press release. “They deserve to know their future in the U.S. is secure.”

Bacon said he won’t be signing the petition, however, because Congress has to do both border security and DACA protection. He said that’s reflected both in polling and what he hears at events around the district.

“Our district overwhelmingly wants to have improved security and DACA, not just one or the other,” Bacon said. “If we end up with just one or the other, I think I’ve let down our constituents. Our constituents want both and I’m committed to doing it.”

Besides immigration, the food stamp portion of the farm bill is a stumbling block in the House.

Opponents say there’s not enough money in the bill for expanding the job-training programs and, beyond that, it’s not practical to expand them so much, so quickly. They say the lack of capacity could cost more than a million people their benefits.

Bacon said the food stamp issue has been mischaracterized by opponents as draconian. He said it will actually help people get job skills and work toward independence while exempting those with young children.

Eastman isn’t necessarily opposed to changes to food stamps, according to spokeswoman Heather Aliano, but she believes that income inequality is a better issue to focus on.

Given both the House deadlock and the Senate’s slower-than-expected pace on the legislation, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he’s worried about whether Congress can get a farm bill done before September.

“I would hit the panic button right now,” Grassley said.

Grassley said that “the way the House is playing this game on a strictly partisan basis” could mean that the House has limited input and will just have to accept whatever the Senate does, which is likely to be on a bipartisan basis.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, is an outspoken hardliner on immigration but was not part of the move to force a vote on the Goodlatte measure. In fact, he opposes the Goodlatte bill, in part because it offers protection to DACA recipients.

“It’s got good enforcement in it, a number of good things for enforcement,” King said. “But it’s also got DACA amnesty in it. It’s got guest worker amnesty in it. If there’s anything I’m about when it comes to immigration, it’s restoring the rule of law. You cannot grant amnesty and simultaneously have the rule of law.”

He said he’s confident that Congress will ultimately pass a farm bill but also suggested that getting things done is harder with a lame-duck speaker. Rep. Paul Ryan announced earlier this year that he’s not seeking re-election.

But King demurred when asked if Ryan should step aside now and let someone else take the reins.

“I don’t want to make any public statement on that because I respect Paul Ryan and these things are hard, but it’s just clear, it’s an axiom of politics that once you become lame duck you start to lose your leverage,” he said. “So riding this thing all the way out to January is a tough thing.”