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DETROIT — For weeks, the looming Detroit bankruptcy has 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 recent news 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 about this year’s farm bill. The drama is far from over, but seems likely to have a once-unlikely heroine: U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), who heads the Senate Agriculture Committee.
The daughter of a small-town car salesman, Senator 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 million-vote landslide victory margin.
The farm bill is critically important to more Americans than those who sit astride tractors. It traditionally has covered everything from food stamps and other nutrition programs to crop insurance and 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 that 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 of Ohio 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, a program that provides benefits to 1.8 million Michiganians.
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 include 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 farm subsidies.
Meanwhile, Sens. Stabenow and Thad Cochran (R., Miss.), the ranking Republican member of the Agriculture Committee, put together a bipartisan bill that won easy passage on a 66-27 vote.
The Senate bill cuts $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 Senator 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, such as mortgage payments, they don’t really have.
He added that Michigan’s agricultural interests ought to find the Senate bill especially appealing, because it increases funding for “specialty crops,” such as cherries. It includes retroactive disaster assistance for fruit and vegetable growers whose crops were heavily damaged by a crippling spring frost.
“Michigan agriculture is the most diverse of any state except California,” Mr. Schwarz noted, and this bill reflects that.
Normally, once the two chambers pass various versions of any bill, they go almost immediately to a conference committee to work out their differences.
But in this case, the House didn’t send its bill to the Senate until last week, at which point Senator Stabenow immediately asked for a conference committee to be established.
What happens next will be crucial. Senator Stabenow 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. Senator Stabenow is stressing the need to get a bill passed by Sept. 30, the end of Washington’s budget year.
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 Dec. 31 is the date that current daily price support ends, which would play havoc with milk prices.
However this turns out, Senator Stabenow, whom 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 chairman.
Republicans, on the other hand, seem to be — bafflingly — willing to risk alienating some of their core constituencies as they head into an election year.
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org