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Bipartisanship Needed for Tall Agenda

DC Dialogue

Nearly unanimous House vote on waterways bill hopefully shows that Congress can find middle ground on farm bill and immigration reform.

Published on: October 25, 2013

In an era where legislators seem to have difficulty agreeing on what time of day it is, we saw a glimmer of hope that the government can indeed function as a combined unit and not be divided solely over partisan politics.

In remarks delivered Oct. 24 at the Center for American Progress, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew indicated that, “As we move forward, we should make a pro-jobs, pro-growth agenda our focus. And we can advance this agenda by taking bipartisan action to replace sequestration, fix our broken immigration system, and pass a farm bill.”

Tall agenda, but can it be done?

The House came together in an overwhelmingly strong vote of 417-3 to pass the blueprint for inland waterways funding. In May the Senate passed its version by a vote of 83-14. The last time a waterways bill was authorized was in 2007, and actually had a super majority then too in order to override a presidential veto.

"The vote offers encouragement that members of Congress validate the importance of inland waterways and the role it plays in our economy," shared Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soybean Transportation Coalition. More than 60% of grain grown by U.S. farmers for export is transported via inland waterways and 95% of farm exports and imports move through U.S. harbors.

There’s no word yet on when a conference process could start.  Steenhoek said he expected that the conference won't be contentious with differences "quite manageable," and a final bill could make it to the President's desk by the end of the year. The Oct. 24 weekly update from the National Association of Wheat Growers expressed less optimism, saying the conference work is "expected to be somewhat bumpy due to differing provisions and spending priorities."

The House version of WRRDA would spend about $8 billon on waterways development projects such as deepening waterways and lock and dam repair and upgrades. The bill also contains provisions intended to speed up the project review process, which should improve the efficiency of shipping goods. The Senate passed its version of the bill, worth about $12 billion, on May 15.

Steenhoek continued that transportation doesn't have to be a partisan issue, but as of recently has fallen prey to the strong partisanship that has encumbered so many issues.

Farm bill

And one of those biggest issues fallen prey to partisanship is the farm bill.

The anticipated dueling out of those deep politics on farm policy will occur within the first farm bill conference committee meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 30, at 1 p.m. (The meeting will be webcast via the Agriculture Committee websites.)

The 41 members of the conference committee, led by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas. R-Okla., and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D- Mich., will begin their public work with opening statements, which could last several hours.

Reports indicate that conferees have agreed on as many relatively minor issues as possible outside of the public eye and before official work begin.

However, the biggest sticking points remain: Title I programs, dairy assistance and spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

"Unless they work swiftly, the calendar will also soon become an enemy of conferees. Just nine weeks remain in 2013, several of which will be consumed by holidays, and both chambers will soon also face decisions on fiscal priorities including FY2014 spending beyond Jan. 15," NAWG said.

A final solution for the farm bill will require big thinking from the conferee members and a commitment regarding whether Congress can put partisan politics aside and advance a bipartisan compromise that can garner enough votes in both chambers and reach the President's desk.

Immigration

Although at this point it seems to be a bit of a long shot in the Congress which has had its bumps in the road this year would be work on immigration reform. The Senate already passed a bill earlier this summer by a vote of 68-32.  

President Obama, key administrative officials as well as reform supporters are hoping to drum up support for the House to take up its own immigration proposals or the Senate's previously approved bill.

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said he hoped President Obama meant what he said about listening to new and different ideas presented by House Republicans to improve our immigration system because "House Republicans and the American public have rejected the Senate approach."

Goodlatte added, "Our immigration system is in desperate need of reform and I remain committed to working on this critical issue. But we don’t need another massive, Obamacare-like bill that is full of surprises and dysfunction after it becomes law. That is why the House is taking a step-by-step approach to immigration reform, methodically examining each component in detail so that we get immigration reform right."

Nearly 100 Farm Bureau leaders and members from across the country are participating in the American’s for Reform immigration fly in on Oct. 29 to advocate congressional passage of comprehensive immigration reform.