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Patrick Springer, Published June 24 2013

Cramer ‘discouraged’ over House failure to pass farm bill

FARGO – Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., expressed frustration over extremists in both parties who rejected the farm bill because it wasn’t perfect in their view.

Speaking Monday to The Forum Editorial Board, Cramer called last Thursday’s surprising House defeat of the farm bill the most frustrating experience in his first six months in office.

“I go back more discouraged than I’ve ever been, to be honest with you, and that’s hard to say for an optimist like me.”

Cramer put the blame for the farm bill’s defeat on about 50 Republicans and about 150 Democrats whom he said rejected a good bill full of compromises because it wasn’t perfect.

Meanwhile, during a meeting in Bismarck with a senior U.S. Department of Agriculture official and North Dakota farm leaders, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., urged the House not to give up on a farm bill.

“Instead of coming together to agree on a bipartisan piece of legislation that gets rid of unnecessary programs, saves billions of dollars for the American taxpayer and preserves a farm safety net, the House failed rural America,” she said in a statement.

If the House can’t pass its own bill, she added, it should embrace the Senate version.

The bill failed 234 to 195 in the House, with 172 Democrats joining 62 Republicans in voting against a new five-year farm bill. The current farm bill was extended to run through the end of the year.

The bill came out of the House Agriculture Committee with a vote of 26 to 13, then was heavily amended on the floor, Cramer said.

“It was not going to be a layup, but it looked like it was going to be a good process,” Cramer said, adding that he voted for the bill in spite of certain flaws because it was good legislation overall.

Cramer said farm bill opposition from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a budget hawk, was especially disappointing because the bill would have met Ryan’s 10-year budgetary goals, which Cramer said “pretended that Obama didn’t win the election.”

“Paul has a greater responsibility,” Cramer said, explaining his disappointment. “He’s the chair of the Budget Committee.”

Cramer said he remains optimistic that a deal still can be struck. Any bill will require a conference committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate.

The best vehicle, in Cramer’s view, would be to go back to the bill that came out of the House Agriculture Committee with strong bipartisan support.

Many Democrats voted against the version on the House floor that they said would have made draconian cuts in food stamps. Cramer said food stamp payments doubled over the past 10 years, and the cuts would have trimmed 3 percent a year going forward.

It would be “disastrous” to allow the farm bill to expire at the end of the year, Cramer said. That would mean reverting to the original law, which dates back to 1949, and would mean price spikes for consumers for milk, wheat and corn.

If a farm bill doesn’t pass, the sugar program, important to the Red River Valley economy, is in jeopardy, he said.

Although the price of sugar in the United States is comparatively cheap, ranking among the bottom fifth, the program is controversial and likely wouldn’t pass on its own, Cramer said.

“Sugar’s one of the things that requires a lot of heavy lifting to keep intact,” he said. “It has to be in the context of a broader bill.”

The House defeat of the farm bill, which has passed the Senate, raises the question of whether the old coalition between farm states and urban liberals, who support food stamps, is beginning to unravel, Cramer said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522