No Rain? Waive the Rules

Rules are made to be broken – or “waived” in Washington-speak.

To be fair, the continuous waiving of the rules is a bipartisan affair.  Nonetheless, it is one of the reasons legislating is frequently and accurately compared to sausage making.  Nowhere is that more evident than on massive reauthorization measures like the farm and food stamp bill.

Buried deep within the House Rules is Rule XVI clause 5, which seeks to prevent this kind of sausage making.  It allows any “Member, Delegate, or Resident Commissioner” to demand a separate vote on each “substantive proposition” contained within a bill.

This longstanding rule affords lawmakers the opportunity to vote separately on each major issue packed into a piece of legislation.  Rule XVI clause 5 is essentially an institutional enforcement mechanism for one plank of the House Republican’s 2010 Pledge to America, to advance one legislative issue at a time:

 

If the House decides to bring the $1 trillion committee-passed farm and food stamp bill to the floor, the Pledge and Rule XVI clause 5 will both be relevant.

Why?

Because the misnamed Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management (FARRM) Act of 2012 (H.R.6083) contains 12 separate titles: Commodities; Conservation; Trade; Nutrition; Credit; Rural Development; Research, Extension and Related Matters; Forestry; Energy; Horticulture; Crop Insurance; and, of course, Miscellaneous.

If the Rules Committee does not waive Rule XVI clause 5, any single lawmaker could “demand the division of the question,” thus forcing separate votes on each of the titles.

Many within the Washington Establishment recoil at the mere suggestion that food stamps, which account for roughly 80% of the spending in the farm bill, should be considered separately from the bill’s other provisions.  Just imagine the outrage by all the various special interest groups if their individual programs were subject to the scrutiny of an open legislative process.

Would the energy title – essentially a slew of government programs and handouts for biofuels – survive if not attached to food stamps and crop insurance? Probably not, though with House Republican leaders rightfully leery of bringing the five-year bill to the floor it’s likely an irrelevant question (at least for now).

The one-year extension itself is problematic because it encompasses the 15 separate titles of the 2008 farm bill.  Even setting aside the multitude of issues covered by this so-called extension, which actually contains “certain modifications and exceptions,” there are other problems.

For example, 37 programs in the 2008 farm bill were not given a specific baseline beyond 2012, and those programs were eliminated in the House-passed Ryan Budget.  An actual extension – opposed to this faux extension – would not fund those programs.  Also, of those 37 programs, eight fall under the energy title, including three that have been modified by recent appropriation bills.

And we’ve noted on several occasions that the disaster funding itself is somewhat suspect:

…since the livestock-specific disaster programs expired in 2011, producers “went into this year knowing they might not be renewed” and could have planned appropriately going into 2012.

How could they have planned for this? The Washington Post (again) explains, “farmers should have to hedge as other businesses do: by diversifying their product lines, purchasing insurance at market rates, leveraging assets or maintaining cash reserves.”

No one is denying this summer’s drought has hit farmers, ranchers and many others hard, but let’s have a debate on this emergency package.  Should orchards struck by lightning be eligible for disaster relief?  What about ranchers who lost livestock to wolves reintroduced into the wild by the Federal Government?  Or livestock lost to federally protected birds?

Fortunately, reports surfaced last night – and continue today – that the House may not combine the one-year extension and drought relief package.  According to Politico:

Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are slated to meet Tuesday morning amid signs that House Republicans may pull back from a one-year extension of farm programs and focus instead on the immediate needs of drought-stricken livestock producers.

Conservatives – and even the Washington Post and New York Times – have made clear that emergency drought legislation should not be used to push through a seriously flawed farm and food stamp bill.  Nor should it be used to push through a flawed extension.

Bruce Babcock, professor of economics and the director of Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, told Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” that the impact of not having a farm bill by harvest season is “almost none” because the “big stabilizing force in the crop sector is crop insurance, it’s there.”

There is a reason legislating is compared to sausage making.  By following the House Rules and the Pledge, lawmakers could go a long way toward correcting that problem.

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