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Farm bill may be N.D. freshman rep's first test

Freshman U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., may be looking for a way to make a real difference as his first term in Congress begins.

Here's an idea: If a new Farm Bill passes out of the House Agriculture Committee in the next few months, Cramer should make it his mission to ensure that the bill reaches the House floor for a vote.

One of Congress' most epic failures in the past 12 months was its refusal to pass a new five-year Farm Bill.

In fact, the words "refusal to pass" are too kind; the better phrase is "refusal to vote," because that's exactly the embarrassing fate that the House leadership brought about.

The U.S. Senate passed a new five-year Farm Bill by a bipartisan supermajority vote. The House Agriculture Committee -- thanks in part to the work of its senior Democrat, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson -- likewise passed a five-year Farm Bill by a bipartisan supermajority vote.

But the House's Republican leaders refused to bring the committee's bill to the floor.

They did so even though the bill introduced dramatic and budget-friendly reforms into farm programs, saving tens of billions of dollars over the programs' current costs.

To his credit, Cramer himself recognized this:

"I put every issue in the context of our $16 trillion debt -- every issue," including agriculture, Cramer told in a recent interview.

Even so, "I think they struck a very good deal in the bill that came out of the House Agriculture Committee," he said in the interview.

The bill's solid bipartisan support was impressive, especially because "it's a very conservative bill," he said.

"And I'm a very conservative person. ... I think it was as good a deal as conservatives are going to get, and frankly I wish they (the full House) would pass it."

But the House's speaker and other leaders never let that happen -- not in the regular session, and not in the lame-duck session, either. (Instead and at the last minute, they passed a weak extension of the current Farm Bill.)

Among its other impacts, their stubbornness contributed to Rick Berg's defeat in his race for the U.S. Senate.

As a Republican congressman representing North Dakota, Berg tried to get the House Republican leadership to relent. But the leaders didn't listen -- and voters took note.

Now, it'll be Cramer's turn. He'll not be a member of the Agriculture Committee; but as a conservative Republican representing newly prosperous North Dakota, he'll still have the House leadership's ear.

If a good bill passes out of that committee, should Cramer bring his powers of persuasion to bear?

Absolutely. Though its leadership still is the same, this House is not the same as the last one. Witness the "fiscal cliff" agreement, which not only let some taxes rise but also passed the House without "a majority of the majority" in support. Before November, the leaders wouldn't have let those things happen.

Basically, the election results seem to have humbled the House's leadership and Republican majority to at least some degree. That's Cramer's opening -- and he should seize it when the time comes to push the Farm Bill to the House floor for a vote.

-- Tom Dennis for the Grand Forks Herald