Farm bill’s future looks cloudy


WASHINGTON – Although the Senate stands ready, House Republicans leaders are holding off any formal effort to negotiate a final version of the farm bill.

A week ago, the House approved a farm bill that for the first time in 50 years did not have farm and nutrition subsidies considered together. The Democrat-controlled Senate, which had previously approved a unified bill, has rejected the House approach.

The standoff over the farm bill will likely be a major campaign issue in the 2014 Arkansas Senate race that is expected to pit U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., against Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle. Pryor is already a candidate. Cotton is not.

Pryor wants to keep farm and nutrition policies linked, claiming that the precedent has helped ensure passage of farm subsidies that benefit Arkansas growers.

Cotton advocates a separation of the two, saying that Arkansas farmers are given short shrift under the tandem approach.

Cotton stands alone in the Arkansas delegation in flatly rejecting the decades-old practice of linking farm and nutrition policies in one bill, calling House approval of a farm-only farm bill “historic.”

Cotton urged the Senate to follow suit in a statement issued earlier this week.

“The farm bill passed by the House last week is an important step toward changing the status quo in Washington, D.C., but its fate now lies in the hands of the Democrat-controlled Senate,” he wrote. “I worry this historic legislation will fall victim to partisan politics. Now that the bill has been sent to the Senate, I urge my colleagues across the Capitol to put leadership ahead of politics and pass this legislation.”

The Senate on Thursday did not comply — returning instead to the bill that it approved a month earlier that kept the traditional link between nutrition and farm policies.

Meanwhile, Pryor criticized Cotton for opposing the farm bill that came out of the House Agriculture Committee with bipartisan support.

“From my standpoint it is irresponsible not to do a farm bill and irresponsible to break it up,” he told reporters. “The House had a chance to support a bipartisan bill but chose a single-party solution that is just not going to happen. Some in the House are just inflexible and short-sighted.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., indicated Friday that the farm bill would not go to conference until the House approves a separate bill aimed largely at cutting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known commonly as food stamps.

While he expected the House to work with urgency, Cantor said a nutrition bill would not be ready for the floor next week. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said there is a 50-50 shot the nutrition bill won’t be ready until after the August recess.

“I think it is a toss-up,” King said.

King, who chairs the House Agriculture subcommittee on nutrition, has readied a list of proposals for how to reduce food stamp spending that will need to be evaluated to determine how much each would save. The Congressional Budget Office should be able to provide rough estimates quickly, he said. After that, lawmakers can decide where and how deeply to cut the program.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, R-Md., said he worries that time may run out on completing a farm bill before the current law expires in September. The House is scheduled to be in session only 17 more days until then.

“We have to pass a farm bill. The Senate wants to go to conference and we are not doing it,” Hoyer said. “Allowing a farm bill to languish is dangerous for this country, for the farm community and others — and it undermines our economy. Moving with dispatch is the best way forward.”