WASHINGTON — California's egg law survived a congressional effort to scramble it as key lawmakers from both parties announced an agreement Monday on a multiyear farm bill.
That means beginning next year, all eggs sold in California will have been laid by hens that had plenty of room to flap their wings.
The compromise farm bill, which could come up for a House vote Wednesday, would avert deep cuts sought by Republicans in the federal food stamp program and end direct payments to farmers — a controversial provision under the previous farm bill in which farmers received federal subsidies regardless of their output.
House passage is not assured, but the lower-than-expected cuts to the food stamp program are likely to bring more Democratic support. Senate action would follow in coming weeks.
Although the exclusion of the egg provision seems like a big win for hens, the debate really focused on states' rights.
Congressional negotiators rejected an effort, led by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), to prevent California from requiring eggs sold in the Golden State to be produced under standards that give hens enough room to spread their wings.
King, who hails from the top egg-producing state, had persuaded the Republican-controlled House to include in its farm bill a measure to prohibit a state from interfering with another state's production of agricultural products. He contended the California law infringed on Congress' power to regulate interstate commerce by imposing conditions on farmers who want to sell eggs in the nation's most populous state.
King did not respond to a request for comment Monday after it was clear that his measure had not been included in the compromise bill.
The provision drew opposition not only from California officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown, but from state lawmakers of both parties throughout the country.
"This is a victory for states' rights," said Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), contending that King's language would have "led to a race to the bottom for agriculture production laws nationwide, trampled on the 10th Amendment of the United States Constitution and imperiled the fate of California egg producers."
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, called King's measure "a radical overreaching amendment."
California voters in 2008 approved Proposition 2, requiring state chicken farmers to give egg-laying birds enough room to stand and spread their wings.
State legislation passed two years later added a requirement that, when the initiative took effect in 2015, eggs sold in the state would have to come from farms that meet the California standards.
The California Farm Bureau Federation hailed the compromise House-Senate bill and called for its passage.
"Although the debate about the King amendment focused on eggs, the amendment threatened other state-specific standards to prevent pests and diseases that threaten California crops," federation president Paul Wenger said in a statement.
He said it was "time for Congress to support the final bill and send it to the president."
The farm bill would mitigate many of the House-sought cuts to the food stamp program, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, by reducing funding by $8 billion over 10 years, far less than the $39 billion once sought by Republicans.
Reliance on food stamps has surged since the Great Recession. Nearly 48 million Americans are enrolled in the assistance program, up 47% since 2008. Total costs jumped from about $38 billion to nearly $80 billion.
The bill's overall price tag was expected to come in below spending levels authorized under the previous law, though a final estimate had not been released. The legislation also averts a significant increase in milk prices that would have occurred without a deal.
Congress' inability to pass a farm bill was another consequence of the partisan warfare that erupted between the House and Senate after Republicans regained control of the lower chamber after the 2010 midterm election.
The traditional alliance of lawmakers from urban and rural districts — one faction strongly supportive of nutrition assistance programs and the other of subsidies that boost farming interests — had served to give the legislation significant bipartisan backing when it was reauthorized every five years. The last farm bill passed in 2008, and its provisions were extended an additional year as part of a January 2013 budget deal.
"We never lost sight of the goal," said Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. "We never wavered in our commitment to enacting a five-year, comprehensive farm bill."