The reauthorization of the Childhood Nutrition Act, which includes the National School Lunch Program, took a major step forward recently. The House Education and Labor Committee passed the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act, H.R. 5504, with a bipartisan vote of 32-13. The First Lady released a statement lauding "the successful bipartisan passage of a child nutrition reauthorization bill out of the Committee today ... I urge both the House and Senate to take their child nutrition bills to the floor and pass them without delay."
Advocates are thrilled that the bill is moving, but the legislative road for school lunch remains long. And it raises the question as to whether Congress will run out of time for it and for the other major food-related bill before it, dealing with food-safety reform.
For the most part the problem is -- surprise, surprise -- the Senate. It’s not simply that 60 votes are a de-facto requirement for final passage of a bill. The GOP now often requires the 60-vote threshold for even minor motions that typically are passed through "unanimous consent," i.e. the Senate version of a voice vote. Voting on every little motion takes forever, and before you know it, oops! it’s time to adjourn for the day.
Back in June, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid circulated a long list of legislative priorities to pass before the end of this current session, which technically occurs in December. Advocates were thrilled to see that food safety and school lunch were both listed -- it was the first time that those two bills were “officially” named as priorities.
Yet a lot remains to be done to get those bills to the president's desk. Neither the House nor the Senate have passed any version of the school lunch bill, while the Senate has not scheduled a vote on food safety at all. And should each chamber pass both bills, they then have to reconcile any differences and pass them again.
Remember the craziness and delays involved in reconciling the health care reform bill? Or the difficulties nailing down the last of the votes for the reconciled financial reform bill (referred to thrillingly as the "conference report")? Legislating is hard! There are theoretical shortcuts House and Senate leaders can take, but the clock ticks.
School lunch insiders say that the House waited until this week to try and pass the bill out of committee so that it could have "momentum" and zoom onto the floor, into conference committee, and thence back to the Senate and from there to the president’s desk. While that strategy comes chock full of PMA, it doesn't seem very realistic.
As the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition policy director Ferd Hoefner told Food Safety News in reference to the food safety bill, "Even if they pass the bill next week, I don't see how they finish ... I don't know that there is enough time to have a real conference."
Meanwhile, Sen. Reid just put out a new, much shorter list of priorities for the Senate between now and the August recess, after which very little will get done. Midterm elections, anyone?
There are three items on the list and they are: an extension of unemployment benefits, a small-business tax credit, and Wall Street reform. Not a food bill in sight. While leaders still want to pass both food-related bills, they are hunting bigger game at the moment. As such, the odds don't favor either school lunch or food safety during the remainder of this session. Should Congress adjourn without acting on them, they will have to start over in January -- with, I should note, a much more conservative Congress (hello, Speaker Boehner!).
If I had to guess -- and barring some miracle -- both school lunch and food safety, which are not nearly as politically contentious as other bills in legislative limbo such as climate change, will be passed during Congress’s so-called lame-duck session after the November elections.
The GOP will gnash its teeth no doubt at the thought of Democrats using the last of their majority power to pass major legislation. But feeding hungry kids and protecting consumers from contaminated foods aren’t exactly controversial. It’s precious little for food activists to hang their hats on and perhaps Pelosi and Reid will surprise us with quicker action. But with a long way to go and little time to get there, it may be the best hope left.
Originally published on Grist.org