The “Old-Fashioned Stuff”

Something weird is going on in Washington.

For all of the catcalls from House Republicans that the Senate hasn’t passed a budget in more than three years…

For all of the jeers from House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) that there are “30 House-passed jobs bills sitting over there in the Senate” which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) won’t bother to put on the floor…

The United States Senate has quietly and mysteriously evolved into the operative legislative body of Congress over the past several months.

An age-old rivalry persists between the House and Senate. The House was designed to be a hyper-partisan institution where the rules favor the party in power. A determined House majority can expedite a piece of legislation to passage at breakneck speed. But the Senate is a body of equals. In many cases, the Senate’s rules and precedents cater to the minority party.

The pace of the plodding, ponderous Senate would make the rate at which the Washington, DC-area power companies are restoring electricity seem practically supersonic after the derecho storm.

But something’s changed on Capitol Hill in the past few months.

The cryogenic freeze that sealed the Senate for most of the 112th Congress suddenly started to melt. That means it’s the Senate, not the House, which is taking the legislative lead these days.

It all started in late winter.

In mid-March, the Senate okayed a $109 billion transportation bill. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), hammered out a two-year extension of highway and transit funding. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the package 74-22.

Then the measure went to the House.

Where it sat. And sat. And sat.

That’s because the House struggled since fall to approve its own version of a transportation package proposed by John Boehner himself. In fact, the House GOP brass had to yank the measure off the floor in February because the bill simply didn’t have the votes. Top Republican leaders faced a firestorm of criticism from all quarters of the party. Many conservatives and tea party-aligned lawmakers balked. They viewed the bill as “big government.” Some lodged philosophical objections to Washington spending money on programs like that.

After weeks of negotiations, the House and Senate just framed a compromise and passed the package late last week – a day before transportation funding was set to expire. The bill sailed through the Senate. But even though the bill commanded 373 yea votes in the House, all 52 nays came from majority Republicans. In fact more members of the minority, (187 Democrats) backed the bill than the majority (186 Republicans).

Now a similar drama’s playing out. This time the scramble’s over the farm bill.

The Senate’s again taken the lead. Senators approved their version of the legislation 64-35 in mid-June. Many would have thought Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes would stand a better chance of getting back together than the Senate passing such a nettlesome piece of legislation.

“This is one of the finest moments in the Senate in recent times in terms of how you pass a bill,” declared Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). “This is almost an out-of-body experience.”

McConnell praised his colleagues for their give-and-take on the issue. He applauded Reid for allowing GOP senators to offer their amendments and not block them.

For his part, Reid noted the Senate’s sudden success.

“There’s been some bipartisan stuff going on here. And we’re able to do that because legislators decided they wanted to legislate,” said Reid. “We’re not going to go back to the old-fashioned stuff.”

Which takes us over to the House – where apparently that “old-fashioned stuff” that Reid alluded to is in full force.

Two weeks ago, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) planned to roll out his version of the farm bill. But Lucas suddenly put the brakes on marking up the bill at the behest of House GOP leaders.

As complicated as the transportation bill could be, the labyrinth of policy and political impacts involving the farm measure could even be tougher to navigate.

For starters, many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for dramatic shifts in direct payments to farmers. But agriculture subsidies for corn, soybeans, meat and peanuts only account for about six percent of the farm bill. Nearly 80 percent of the legislation is devoted to funding food stamps, known formally as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).

Use of SNAP has escalated over the past 12 years. Nearly 45 million Americans depend on SNAP for their meal needs. The Senate cut around $4 billion in SNAP funding in its legislation and Lucas would like to go deeper.

“It will be a bill that achieves real savings,” said Lucas who aims for an equilibrium between cuts for SNAP and for agriculture.

But here lies the rub:

It is a bear politically to slash direct payments to farmers. Those who defend the subsidies will accuse Washington of “abandoning” farmers, even as commodity prices climb. That’s to say nothing of record-high net cash farm incomes, which have soared 24 percent in two years. Meantime, Democrats are readying their artillery for cuts to food stamps. Democrats had a field day maligning the budget propounded last year by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI). They alarmed seniors about possible reductions to Medicare and other entitlements. Expect a similar narrative if the GOP forges ahead with a farm bill. And this is more toxic because it’s an election year.

But that’s not all.

On the transportation bill, a coalition of Democrats and Republicans emerged to stymie the package for months on end. Democrats fretted about environmental streamlining and diminished safety requirements. Conservatives didn’t like the price tag or funding mechanisms.

A similar alliance of “nay” votes could emerge on the farm bill. Democrats will rally around SNAP and attempt to portray Republicans as uncaring and cynical toward the poor. Some Republicans will grouse about the cost and the role in government in food assistance and agriculture.

It’s a challenging cocktail of no votes, which, like the transportation bill, could put the skids on the farm package.

“The House might have to explain why they can’t get it done,” groused Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) when told the House might not move a farm bill to the floor. “That’s their problem. I don’t think most of us think much of that.”

A tough whip count is just one of the reasons why the Republican brass slowed down the effort to prep the farm bill.

A huge political issue looms. Say the House and Senate come to terms with a farm bill and manage to pass it. Does the House Republican leadership really want President Obama to sign a farm bill in a agricultural-heavy swing state like Iowa or Ohio in September?

Finally, there are questions about the need to even complete a farm bill at all. Yes, the current farm and nutrition programs need to be renewed later this year in some form or farm policy reverts to what’s called “permanent law.” That means farmers would be operating under an antiquated quota system established in the 1930s and 1940s.

That’s unlikely to happen. But when it comes to conventional “farm” bills, today’s agriculture community spends more time evaluating energy legislation, immigration policy, tax code changes, access to capital, labor law and trade agreements. Direct payments are not as critical to today’s sophisticated farmer. So many in the farm community aren’t concerned about the House’s ability to find common ground with the Senate – so long as lawmakers renew existing policies in some manner.

In fact, Lucas, told a farm industry radio program last week that he has carried “a draft copy of an extension in my pocket” for a year. Lucas says he doesn’t want to default to an extension, but is “prepared to use if an extension is in the best interest of the folks back home on the farm.”

But so far, there’s no official plan to put the farm bill on the floor. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) didn’t mention the farm bill in a memo he sent to rank-and-file Republicans in May which laid out the summer floor schedule. That’s led to rumblings that the House GOP might not do a bill at all.

“I’ve talked to the chairman and the ranking member and they are both committed to getting this done,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI).

Lucas insists he’ll be ready to go. But not just yet.

“I haven’t made a request for floor time because I don’t have a bill,” said Lucas. “We’ll do it whenever it’s possible to do it.”

Despite pulling the plug a few weeks ago, Lucas has scheduled a “mark-up” session for July 11. A markup is where members of the Agriculture Committee go through the package line by line to craft the final package.

Coincidentally, July 11 is also the same day Cantor’s scheduled the GOP’s latest effort to repeal the health care law. House Republicans clearly have the votes to pass that. But despite the Senate’s latest legislative accomplishments, that effort won’t gain any traction there. At least not this year. That’s because in the eyes of Harry Reid, the Senate’s “not going to go back to the old-fashioned stuff.”