Fair Factor

There are few spectacles more American than a county fair in August.

The aroma of funnel cake flecked with powdered sugar – wafting down the midway. Gleeful squeals from kids riding the Tilt-A-Whirl. 4-H members prepping their livestock in the beef and draft horse barns. The patter of a carnival barker at the Skee Ball booth.

Oh, and irate farmers and ranchers upbraiding lawmakers because they can’t pass a farm bill or drought aid back in Washington.

Attendance at the local fair is mandatory for those who represent rural America on Capitol Hill. Fairs are usually pleasant events for lawmakers. Press the flesh. Hand out some bumper stickers. Devour a slab of the peach cobbler that won first prize and chat up the locals.

But an historic drought is baking nearly 90 percent of the nation’s farmland. Stunted cornstalks line the roads, incubated by scorching temperatures. Farmers are looking to Washington. And they see a stalled farm bill and no agreement on a drought package.

“They are upset. They’re frustrated. They’re angry. They’re concerned and they’re worried,” declared Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

If Congress doesn’t work this out in a few days, lawmakers surfacing at those county fairs may want to get that peach cobbler to go. Perhaps duck out through a back exit in the milking parlor during the tractor pull. That’s because these summer fetes devoted to showcasing the best of rural America could turn volatile when their Member of Congress shows up.

You’ve heard of Fear Factor? This is “fair factor.” And Congressional leaders know just how bad things will be at these county fairs if they send lawmakers home for the August recess without a path forward on the farm bill or drought assistance.

The Senate approved its version of the farm bill in June. The House finished writing its farm measure a few weeks ago. The drought developed in between.

“I do believe the House will address the livestock disaster program that unfortunately in the last farm bill was only authorized for four years,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) Thursday.

Congressional leaders want to solve this puzzle. But how they get there is anybody’s guess.

The problem is that the House farm bill doesn’t have the votes. The package reforms agriculture programs and slashes $35 billion over a decade. That pleases a lot of Republicans. But nearly 80 percent of the farm bill goes to food stamps, known as SNAP (for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). House Republicans made steep cuts in that portion of the measure, slashing some $16 billion.

But to many Republicans, that’s not enough.

“The farm bill is hijacked by the SNAP program,” groused Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN), who farms some 4,000 acres himself. Stutzman was one of four Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee who voted against the package as it emerged from committee. The bill didn’t slash SNAP as deeply as he’d like.

There are dozens of other House Republicans who feel the same as Stutzman. But then there are the Congressional Democrats. They believe the House Agriculture went too far cleaving SNAP, especially with so many Americans demanding food assistance. So they aren’t ready to vote for a bill either.

It’s a conundrum – precisely the right combination of Republican and Democratic members prepared to vote nay – for completely different reasons.

This is nothing new. In fact, it’s the epitome of the problem that’s vexed Boehner for a while now: a swath of Republicans who aren’t willing to go along with a GOP proposal. So what has Boehner done before? Turned to Democrats to help pass key legislation.

Republicans currently hold a 241-191 advantage over Democrats in the House with three vacancies. That means Boehner can only lose 25 of his own members before he needs a lifeline from Democrats. Boehner’s been fortunate throughout this Congress. He’s lost anywhere from 48 to 101 Republicans on major bills dating back to March, 2011. For instance, the GOP lost 54 of its own on an effort to avert a government shutdown last spring. 101 Republicans defected on another government funding package in November. Sixty-six Republicans voted against hiking the debt limit a year ago. Ninety-one Republicans were “noes” when it came to extending the payroll tax cut in February. And less than a month ago, 52 GOPers voted nay on a key transportation package.

The election is looming. House Republicans are skittish about taking more tough votes. And House Democrats are weary of continually carrying water for the GOP on make-or-break issues.

Skeletal plans emerged over the past few days to renew the existing farm law for one year and graft drought assistance on the top. If the House passes a bill it’s then on the same parliamentary footing as the Senate. Approving a bill in the House would then create an avenue to a conference committee where negotiators from both sides of the Capitol could craft the final version of the five-year farm measure.

“If you’re going to provide certainty out in the drought areas, the one-year (extension) makes sense,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK).

The House has to move quickly if it’s going to do this as lawmakers only have one more week in Washington before the August recess.

“If you don’t vote on something next week, you don’t vote on anything,” noted Lucas.

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) is the leading Democrat on the House Agriculture panel. He opposes an extension – unless it  moves the larger bill to a conference committee.

“An extension is unnecessary,” said Peterson, “Unless we can go to conference.”

If you think this exercise sounds familiar, you’re right. House and Senate leaders deployed a similar tactic to approve a sticky transportation bill.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved the transportation package earlier this year. But it languished in the House. The House finally passed a “shell” of a transportation bill with a provision to launch construction of the Keystone pipeline attached. That got the bill into a House-Senate conference committee where the sides finally passed a measure to fund transportation and construction programs.

It’s thought a similar maneuver might be successful here. But questions remain about what the drought relief portion of the bill might look like.

Federal crop insurance protects most farmers who raise corn, soybeans and other major commodities. But the existing farm bill falls short when it comes to covering livestock losses created by the drought. It’s believed the funding for livestock could be potentially small – as little as $250-300 (m) million. That’s barely a few shekels the way Washington spends money. But the price tag could explode to nearly $2 (b) billion if lawmakers fund what’s called Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments (known as SURE) to help with livestock losses.

Regardless, Republicans will demand the emergency spending is paid for. Direct payments to farmers could be the kitty for this.

But here’s the real problem:

House Republicans want to burrow deep into the SNAP program to save money on the overall farm bill. The House-prepared farm measure does just that. But that could become a moot point come September.

The House and Senate have not yet agreed on any of the 12 annual spending bills which run the government. Congress and the president must forge an agreement on all of these by October 1 (the start of the government’s fiscal year) or face a government shutdown. But over the past few days, House and Senate leaders have begun crafting a six-month, stopgap spending plan to punt this fiscal fights to next year. At that point, Republicans hope Mitt Romney will be president and they’ll have a Republican Senate.

“We’re going to come to an agreement, I would hope, with our colleagues in the Senate to try to make sure that the government is funded and that there’s no opportunity for games to be played,” said Boehner.

Here’s the issue: an interim measure (known as a Continuing Resolution or “CR” for short) inherently maintains spending at the existing levels. So if Congress agrees to a one-year extension of the farm bill, the GOP-backed cuts to food stamps don’t exist. That’s because the old policy remains in place. And the problem gets deeper if lawmakers pass a CR in September to sidestep a government shutdown. By their nature, SNAP funds are what’s called “appropriated mandatory” spending. The money flowing to SNAP is like the dollars which pay for Pell Grants or some Medicare and Medicaid programs. The spending levels for SNAP would simply reflect what was allocated in the CR – which would be the old law. Thus, there are no SNAP cuts.

That’s sure to inflame Republicans who were skeptical of the farm bill to start with. And that means it’s a challenge to give lawmakers a farm and drought measure to wave around during the August recess.

Marlin Stutzman says no bill may look bad “in the near-term. But in the long-term, I doubt it.”

Stutzman fears that lawmakers are racing to react when they don’t yet know the true dimension of the drought.

“Let the better part of wisdom prevail here,” added Stutzman.

Unlike Stutzman, freshman Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) supported the farm bill in committee. And she wants action before the August break.

“It’s got to be done,” Noem said, a farmer and rancher herself.

In particular, Noem wants to see some livestock help.

“These guys are sitting out there with nothing right now,” she said.

And that’s the issue. Many Republicans want to boost the farmers. But the push for a one-year farm bill extension and the interim package to avoid a government shutdown could diminish any cuts they want to make to food stamps. So if lawmakers abandon Washington next week with no deal, that could introduce the “fair factor.”

County fairs are a part of Americana. The fried dough. The Ferris wheels. Strolls through the barns. A Sawyer Brown concert at night.

Those fairs could feature an added attraction this year. If lawmakers fail to okay the farm bill and drought assistance, “pin the blame on the lawmaker” booths could crop up along midways all across America next month.

– Cristina Marcos contributed to this report.