A Fumble On The Farm Bill

The House moved quickly to override President Bush’s veto of the Farm Bill Wednesday — so quickly that lawmakers may have to do it again.

One hundred Republicans joined 216 Democrats on the 316-108 vote, which came just hours after the White House had returned the $307 billion, five-year measure.

The action reflected growing tensions between Congress and the White House over budget priorities. And a second showdown could come Thursday in the Senate when Democrats will press for a major expansion of GI education benefits to help veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

But the new majority hurt its cause in the case of the Farm Bill. In the rush to act before the Memorial Day recess, the leadership ignored the full consequences of a clerical error in which the third of the bill’s 15 titles had been dropped from the text presented on parchment to the president for his signature or veto.

After consulting with parliamentarians, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said that the House had properly overridden Bush on those portions on the parchment — but that left Title III, which covers trade and important international nutrition programs, out in the cold.

To remedy the situation, the Maryland Democrat said Wednesday night that the “likely” solution to the parliamentary snafu will be for the Congress to send Bush a newly numbered bill with the full text of the one voted upon last week.

“We can pass a full bill again. I think that’s likely, or we can just do Title III,” Hoyer said. He had not yet consulted with Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) but signaled that passing the bill again was the cleanest route and one he hoped could be done quickly.

Toward this end, the House Rules Committee cleared the way Wednesday night for an agriculture related bill to be brought up for a quick vote, and Hoyer’s hope is that Congress waves the newly numbered but familiar bill through, Bush vetoes again, and the override votes resume.

Then again, little about the Farm Bill has gone smoothly. And one casualty already in the whole affair could be plans for passing the 2009 budget before the recess. Hoyer indicated that will now wait until lawmakers return in June; the rest of this week will be devoted to clearing up the Farm Bill confusion and debate on a defense authorization bill.

The day had begun with more confidence. Stepping out of character, the Senate’s mild-mannered Finance Committee chairman, Sen. Max Baucus, had even taunted Bush for having brought “a knife to a gunfight” in the Farm Bill veto battle, which the Montana Democrat dismissed as “a speed bump on the road” toward enacting the legislation.

The macho talk reflected growing disagreements between Congress and the White House five months before the November elections. The Democrats’ proposed budget resolution would add $21 billion to White House appropriations requests for the coming year. And education is a signature issue for the party, from public school reading programs to GI benefits.

More than one-third of the increased appropriations identified in the new budget resolution would go to education accounts. And GI college benefits are pivotal to Senate votes Thursday related to a larger spending package for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jobless benefits and Gulf Coast aid are part of the same debate. But the expanded GI benefits—costing $52 billion over 10 years—have become a rallying cry for Democrats, who are pressing Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, to join in the effort because of his support of the war in Iraq.

Thus far, McCain has refused, preferring an alternative bill that puts more focus on benefits for the families of career officers and noncommissioned officers. But even this bill is now projected to cost $38 billion over the next 10 years. Despite the continued sniping, New Hamshire Sen. Judd Gregg, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, predicted some blend of the two plans is now likely to clear Congress before the elections. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is poised to press hard on Thursday for his preferred version of the GI education bill, sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.).

Reid is expected to first seek 60 votes on a larger domestic spending package that includes aid to Gulf Coast states still recovering from Katrina. But if that fails, he can then come back with a cleaner version focused on the Webb bill, where he has said he has the votes to prevail.

In all the maneuvering, both political parties lose sight of deficit reduction as a major goal. And as much as the White House has tried to draw a firm line on spending, it is undercut by its own demands for ever more emergency funding for U.S. military operations and foreign aid initiatives.

Many Democrats argue that the GI education benefits should be viewed as part of the enormous cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, farm-state Republicans complain that the commodity title of the Farm Bill--costing $7 billion a year--is not a fair target for Bush to choose at this juncture “I’m a little bit amazed that a quarter of 1 percent of federal spending got the president’s attention. Why this; why now?” said Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, a social conservative from rural Colorado who helped whip Republicans in support of the override. “The Farm Bill’s right up there with motherhood and apple pie, and back home, they don’t understand why the president is vetoing it.”

For its part, the White House gave no hint that it had know the Title II was missing, since the administration works more from the legislative conference report than the parchment text. But in his veto message, Bush argued that at a time of high food prices and record farm income, this bill lacks the program reform he wanted, especially tighter payment caps that would bar wealthy individuals from receiving continued subsidies.”

Singling out “earmarks and other ill-considered provisions,” the president said that “rural and urban Americans alike are frustrated with excessive government spending and the funneling of taxpayer funds for pet projects.”

Farm Bill advocates argue that the measure incorporates more reform than its critics acknowledge, by improving the reporting of subsidy payments and imposing new income caps that can be tightened in the future. And when compared to the 2002 Farm Bill, which Bush signed, the cost of the commodity title is dramatically less.

Much of this is the natural result of higher crop prices, which have made the old safety net price support and loan programs irrelevant in many markets. But a comparison of 2002-2006 spending and that projected for the next five years is striking.

Nutrition programs will account for more than two-thirds of the $307 billion cost of the bill, a dramatic increase. At the same time, the different pieces most important to individual farmers have changed significantly.

For example, from 2002 to 2006, commodity programs cost the government about $74.9 billion compared with $35 billion projected for 2008-2012. At the same time, conservation spending would increase significantly to about $25 billion. And even after the savings promised in the new bill, crop insurance premium subsidies would grow to $27.4 billion, almost twice the $14.6 billion cost from 2002-2006.