Senate passes farm bill
By Larry Dreiling
The U.S. Senate June 21 approved its version of the 2012 farm bill by a vote of 64-to-35. The five-year bill, set to cost $485 billion over the life of the bill, envisions total spending of $969 billion over the next decade.
The bill eliminates direct payments and emphasizes risk management, expands crop insurance access, increases accountability in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program--better known as food stamps--and consolidates 23 existing conservation programs into 13 programs, while making cuts of $23 billion over the current farm bill.
This is despite an overall spending increase on programs covered by the bill because more people are receiving SNAP payments.
Farm bills traditionally have been bipartisan efforts, and leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee made a point of showing how their bill would bring down the deficit.
Some of the ways deficit reduction will occur under the bill include preventing farm "managers," often high net worth people who may not live or work on a farm, from receiving subsidy payments. It also gives greater help to fruit and vegetable producers and healthy food programs.
The Senate rejected several Republican amendments that would have reduced food stamp spending by such means as tightening up eligibility requirements.
In all, the Senate considered more than 70 amendments over three days. Among the more significant the Senate approved, over the objections of Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, and Ranking Minority Member Pat Roberts, R-KS, was a measure that would reduce by 15 percentage points the share of crop insurance premiums the government pays for farmers with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000.
Sponsors of that amendment, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-IL, and Tom Coburn, R-OK, said that would affect only 15,000 of 1.5 million farmers and save $1 billion over the next decade. Stabenow and Roberts argued that it would result in fewer people buying insurance and more relying on ad hoc disaster relief.
Currently the government bears an average 62 percent of crop insurance premiums, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the crop insurance costs will be nearly $10 billion a year over the next 10 years.
Another amendment, sponsored by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-GA, that would apply highly erodible land conservation compliance rules to crop insurance, passed 52 to 47.
The vote, again over the objections of the committee leadership, led Roberts to offer perhaps the best line of the 2 1/2 day long debate. It recalled a current series of popular commercials for a satellite TV service.
"The battle cry for conservation compliance requirements to be attached to crop insurance seems, strangely, to assume that conservation compliance is somehow eliminated in commodity programs in this new bill. This is not true. Conservation compliance is attached to the new farm revenue program in Title I of the bill. Conservation compliance is also attached to the marketing loan program," Roberts said.
"To duplicate the same requirements in crop insurance is wasteful of government resources, taxpayer dollars, and will cause a lot more paperwork. When your farmers find out you are wasting taxpayer dollars and are in charge of a duplicative effort and making them fill out more paperwork, you will have to hide in your office for four weeks. Do not hide in your office for four weeks. Vote no."
While transforming the payment system, the Senate left intact the sugar program that for some 80 years has protected beet and sugarcane growers and sugar refiners by controlling prices and limiting imports.
Consumer groups and food and beverage companies that use sugar oppose the program. They say it drives up costs and leads to confectioners relocating overseas. Amendments to either phase out or narrow the scope of the sugar program both failed on close votes.
The Senate also narrowly rejected an amendment by Sen. Mike Johanns, R-NE, that would have barred the Environmental Protection Agency from all aerial surveillance of agriculture operations.
Still, for the most part, there were plenty of hugs and handshakes seen on the Senate floor following the final vote on the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was effusive with praise for the work Stabenow and Roberts and their staffs in not only getting the farm bill passed, but also in showing what most veteran congressional watchers said was an example of the bipartisan way legislation used to be debated and how things could be again if they all worked at it.
"We would be remiss if we did not say something to the entire Senate about how we feel about this bill and the leadership that was shown by these two fine senators," Reid said. "They have causes they are trying to protect for their members but they do it in a way that is cordial. There has been nothing but courtesy shown for weeks.
"I have managed quite a few bills in my day. This is a difficult bill to have in the position we have it in now. I hope our friends in the House see what we have done. I cannot say enough--although I will try--to applaud and compliment Sen. Stabenow and Sen. Roberts. They are both my friends but my view of them has risen appreciably in their legislative methods of getting this done."
For his part, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the Agriculture Committee's actions "entirely consistent with the norms and traditions of the Senate.
"Members have had an opportunity to express themselves in a whole variety of ways, both relevant to the amendments and a few not relevant to the amendments. This is one of the finest moments in the Senate in recent times in terms of how you pass a bill. I think we are all feeling good about the way this has been handled. I think we are moving back in the direction of operating the Senate in a way that we sort have traditionally understood we were going to operate the Senate."
Upon learning of the Senate passage of the farm bill, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack offered his praise, saying the bill makes progress toward "providing a reformed safety net for producers in times of needs," supporting agriculture research, conserving natural resources, strengthening local food systems and promoting jobs. He expressed hope the House "will produce a bill with those same goals in mind."
Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said that while there will be differences between the House and Senate approaches, "I hope my colleagues are encouraged by this success." His committee is scheduled to meet on July 11 to vote on a House version of the bill.
The House must deal with a North-South divide on the bill that the Senate chose to leave for future negotiations.
The switch from direct payments to the revenue loss subsidy was welcomed by Northern and Midwestern corn and soybean farmers but strongly opposed by Southern rice and peanut growers. They traditionally have relied more on direct payments and targeted prices and want to keep parts of those subsidies. The House is expected to be more sympathetic to the Southerners.
The House Agriculture Committee also has a large freshman Republican contingent, wanting to further cut farm bill spending. The whole House will likely want to cut spending even more.
That will leave the final compromise to House-Senate conferees, comprised of members of both the enacting committees. It is widely expected that any House initiated cuts beyond what the Senate bill offers will be rejected, along with any amendments non-germane to agriculture the House may tack onto the bill.
Whatever occurs in the House and subsequent conference debate, the bill must be delivered to President Barack Obama for his signature by Sept. 30, when the 2008 farm bill expires.
Jim Abrams of The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.