The Farm Bill, a five-year federal spending bill that allots money for nutrition and hunger-prevention programs, industrial agriculture, and smaller farming operations, was blocked last Friday, and remained in limbo as Congress went into Thanksgiving recess.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin told the Associated Press that lawmakers may not revisit the legislation until 2008 or later. Some senators want to reach a compromise on the bill when Congress returns in December, but with votes pending on Iraq War funding and the energy bill, there’s likely to be gridlock. In the meantime, farmers will have to count on extensions of existing funding (see “Mowed Down,” by Deirdre Fulton, August 17).
The stalemate resulted from a squabble between Republican senators — who wanted to tack on extra amendments to the Farm Bill (amendments largely unrelated to food, or even farming — such as a provision about the estate tax) — and their Democratic counterparts, who complained the additional changes were inappropriate stalling tactics.
At the end of last week, Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, moved for an immediate vote on the bill, in an effort to limit amendments and end the two-weeks-and-dragging debate. But his effort was defeated on Friday, 55-42, mostly along party lines. Both Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins voted against ending debate.
“It is unfortunate that the Majority Leader chose a procedure that prevents amendments from being offered, except for those that have his personal approval,” Collins said in a statement. “That is contrary to the Senate tradition of open debate and amendment on major legislation. This legislation, which reauthorizes many important agricultural, nutrition, and forestry programs, should be considered carefully with Senators having the opportunity to offer amendments. I hope that the Majority Leader will reconsider and allow the standard procedure to apply to this important bill.”
Meanwhile, the federal Energy Bill, which addresses climate change, renewable energy, and the country’s dependence on foreign oil, still has a chance of survival — but in the absence of public vigilance, sneaky politicians may try to strip the bill of its most important provisions.
The bill, passed by both houses this summer, is in conference committee, where legislators vie for the inclusion of certain terms, and the elimination of others.
Barring any big surprises, fuel efficiency standards will likely be strengthened, to US auto executives’ chagrin. The Senate version of the energy bill calls for all vehicles — including SUVs and light trucks — to get to at least 35 miles per gallon by 2020. All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation are strong supporters of raising fuel-economy standards.
Three more controversial pieces of the bill are on shakier ground:
Renewable-energy tax credits — which would offer tax incentives for producing wind, solar, and other types of alternative energy — by cutting off big oil subsidies;
National Renewable Energy Portfolio provisions (like the one that we have in Maine, an REP sets the standard for how much energy comes from renewables);
A renewable fuel standard, which prescribes what amount of ethanol would be mixed with traditional gasoline supplies.
That’s it, just those three little things.
Auto workers, oil companies, and farmers all snarling together in a pit of special interests — it’s not a pretty picture, and it’s one that pulls politicians in all kinds of different directions.
Congressional leaders still say that we’ll have an energy bill some time in December, but it remains to be seen how gutted that bill will be.