In a bid to reverse its failure to pass a farm bill in June, House leadership is considering peeling the Nutrition Title from the legislation.

The thinking is that a farm bill sans Nutrition Title would be more palatable to Republicans who voted against the original bill. Legislation addressing food stamps and nutrition programs would then be taken up later.

This approach – which would do away with an urban/rural coalition that has been in force for over 40 years -- has picked up steam after being advocated by conservative lawmakers and think-tanks. On Tuesday (July 9), after meeting with House leadership, Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, gave the plan a luke-warm thumbs up.

In early July, a 530-plus member coalition of agricultural groups sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner warning against the split. “It is vital for the House to try once again to bring together a broad coalition of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to provide certainty for farmers, rural America, the environment and our economy in general and pass a five-year farm bill upon returning in July. We believe that splitting the nutrition title from the rest of the bill could result in neither farm nor nutrition programs passing, and urge you to move a unified farm bill forward.”

Read the full letter and list of signees here.

House Democrats, meanwhile, are warning that the attempt is destined for failure and unlikely to pick up a single vote from anyone in their caucus.

And Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has made it clear the proposal is a non-starter. That means if a split-apart bill does pass the House and somehow comes out of conference it will return to the lower chamber with the Nutrition Title intact where it still must face a disgruntled Republican majority.

Interestingly, following House leadership’s flirtation with the decoupling plan, Michael A. Needham, CEO of Heritage Action – one of the conservative groups most responsible for pushing the idea – remained unhappy. “The purpose of ending the unholy alliance that has dominated the food stamp and farm bill for decades is to allowsubstantive debate that would allow the House to show its conservative values. Unfortunately, this is nothing more than a naked attempt to get to a conference committee with the Senate. The end result of such a conference would be a perpetuation of subsidies and government intervention that will continue to harm consumers and taxpayers alike.”

One proponent of decoupling the Nutrition Title from the farm bill is Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry. “It’s time to separate the farm (portion of the legislation) from the nutrition (program portion),” he told Farm Press in late June. “Pass a farm bill. Pass a nutrition bill. Pass or fail each – but they need to stand on their own merits.

“We need to focus the farm bill on agriculture and farming. The two sections are being held hostage against each other. And now politics reigned over substance. That needs to stop.

“The nutrition programs will continue whether or not we pass a farm bill. I will repeat that: SNAP will continue regardless. The farm bill has been effectively decoupled from (nutrition) since the (2008 farm bill) extension was put in place.”

Strain disagrees with those claiming urban backing for a farm bill will be lost under such a legislative plan. “Everyone in the urban areas eat. The farm bill is there to protect our nation’s food supply and to make sure we have a supply of affordable, safe, nutritious food. It’s a fundamental basis of the U.S. economy.

“Saying that a farm bill can’t pass without a Nutrition Title because the urban people won’t vote for it is ludicrous. That day has passed. We need to address issues as they are.”

More from Strain here.

A bad idea long-term?

On Tuesday (July 9), several veteran, D.C.-based lobbyists and former Capitol Hill staffers told Farm Press that decoupling the titles was a bad idea in the long-term.

“Some of the Republicans want to take the Nutrition Title out and also repeal some of the permanent law provisions in the 1949 Act,” said one. “That way if the farm bill expires (in September) there won’t be the threat of more expensive programs under permanent law kicking in.

“Now, whether they can get the votes to do all that, I don’t know. And they don’t know either – that’s what the Republicans are trying to figure out.”

Even if a Nutrition Title-less farm bill passes the House, he said, “I can’t imagine the Senate agreeing to a farm bill agreeing to that. At the same time, I can’t imagine the House agreeing to only $4 billion in nutrition program savings” that the Senate farm bill calls for.

“The frustrating thing is the House farm bill that failed took $40 billion out of the nutrition programs. Republicans who voted against the bill couldn’t accept victory. I don’t get it…

“Taking nutrition out of farm bill is bad for the longtime coalition that passes farm legislation. And once they’re split it’s over because it’ll get so ugly – it’ll polarize everyone even more.”

In the short-term, said another lobbyist, the House could pass a farm bill without a Nutrition Title. “But the great unknown is if you bring it back from the conference and the Senate insists on it including the Nutrition Title, which I think is a given, can it pass the House then?”

What’s really interesting, both said, is the lack of enforcement by House leadership. “When I worked there -- and the Democrats were in charge then -- if leadership brought a farm bill to the floor, Democrats were expected to support it. That’s especially true of the committee chairmen. There never would have been six committee chairmen taking a hike or cutting the legs out from under the Speaker -- but that’s what happened with this latest farm bill vote. Part of the burden of being a leader is sometimes you have to vote for stuff you don’t want to.”