For weeks, the looming Detroit bankruptcy has literally been the monster of all Michigan stories, dominating the news almost to the point of crowding out everything else.
Yet just as there is more to the state’s economy than cars, there are more things at stake than the fate of Michigan’s devastated largest city. You might not guess it from the recent coverage, but Michigan agriculture is a $72 billion business — by most measures, the second-largest component of the state’s economy.
For weeks, a drama has been playing out in Washington involving this year’s farm bill, a drama far from over, but one which seems likely to have a once-unlikely heroine: U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
The daughter of a small-town car salesman, Stabenow, a 63-year-old former folk singer and social worker, has become perhaps Congress’ most highly respected voice on agriculture.
She has so thrown herself into mastering the complex world of farm policy that the normally Republican Michigan Farm Bureau endorsed her for a third term last year, one factor in her nearly one million vote landslide victory.
The farm bill is something critically important to more than just those who sit astride tractors. It traditionally has covered everything from food stamps and other nutrition programs to crop insurance and various conservation efforts.
Getting a bill done in a timely fashion is important, perhaps especially now, following last year’s devastating drought. Traditionally, farm bill squabbles have been more regional than partisan, with various sections wanting to make sure their particular interests and crops were adequately represented and protected.
But in today’s Washington, little goes on that is not ideological. The Republican-controlled House embarrassed Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and itself in June by rejecting what was supposed to be a bipartisan farm bill. A large faction of Republicans voted against it because they felt it did not cut money for food stamps enough.
They then regrouped, and on July 11 narrowly passed a farm bill than includes no money for food stamps whatsoever, a program that provides benefits to 1.8 million Michiganders alone.
No Democrats voted for that bill, and a dozen Republicans opposed it. President Obama promptly indicated he would veto any farm bill that did not contain food stamp funding. Bizarrely, the House bill was even attacked by a host of conservative groups.
Heritage Action said it was “substantially worse on policy grounds than the legislation produced by the Democrat-controlled Senate,” primarily because it did nothing to end bloated subsidies.”
Meanwhile, Stabenow and Thad Cochran, R-MS, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, put together a bipartisan bill that won easy passage by a 66-27 vote.
The Senate bill does cut $4 billion from the food stamp program, which in Washington jargon is called SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But Cullen Schwarz, an aide to Stabenow, said that was done mostly by closing loopholes, such as no longer allowing winners of large lottery payouts to remain eligible for assistance, or those who claim expenses, like mortgage payments, they don’t really have.
He added that Michigan agricultural interests ought to find the senate bill especially appealing, since it increases funding for “specialty crops” such as cherries, and includes retroactive disaster assistance for fruit and vegetable growers whose crops were heavily damaged last year by a crippling spring frost.
“Michigan agriculture is the most diverse of any state except California,” Schwarz noted, adding that this bill reflects that.
Normally, once the two chambers pass various versions of any bill, they go almost immediately to a conference committee.
But in this case the House, for unknown reasons, didn’t send its bill to the Senate until last week, at which point Stabenow immediately asked for a conference committee to be established.
What happens next will be crucial. The Senate chair has flatly stated she will not agree to any bill that doesn’t include food stamps. The reaction of even conservatives to the House bill makes it seem likely that Republicans will be forced to back down from an approach that American Conservative Magazine called a combination of “a fiscal disaster with a political one.”
Yet in today’s highly polarized world, nothing is certain. Stabenow is stressing the need to get a bill passed by Sept. 30. But an Ohio State University analysis concluded that “the key date for passing a farm bill is not Sept. 30, but Dec. 31, 2013.”
Without a new bill, some crop subsidies would continue, but that is the date that current daily price support ends, which would play havoc with milk prices. However this turns out, Debbie Stabenow, who Republicans tried to lampoon as “ineffective” and “do-nothing Debbie,” throughout her first two terms, seems to have won wide bipartisan respect for her role as agriculture chair.
Republicans, on the other hand, seem to be - bafflingly - risking alienating some of their core constituencies heading into an election year.
Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.