Food assistance battles highlight farm bill debate
By Larry Dreiling
Mandatory checkoff program rules, funding for rural broadband Internet expansion and loan guarantees for various U.S. Department of Agriculture programs were saved as the U.S. Senate began to sift through its proposed farm bill June 19.
The Senate started to whittle away at 73 amendments to a bill that will set farm and food assistance policy over the next five years. The Senate took on 29 amendments June 19, with more to come as the week was set to go forward.
Senators proposed more than 300 amendments to the farm bill as it went to the floor, and the effort to shrink the number of amendments to a manageable size wasn't without difficulty.
For instance, the influential Washington newspaper Roll Call noted that on June 18, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan was seen in a heated exchange of words with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, over what their sources said was the inclusion of a Sanders amendment requiring labeling of food products to indicate the inclusion of genetically modified products.
Roll Call's report noted "Sanders getting red in the face and at one point brushing away Stabenow's hand within full view of the gallery. The two then took their conversation into the cloakroom, where one source said their exchange was even more heated."
Sanders' amendment was placed on the list.
While Stabenow was working Sanders, Ranking Minority Member Pat Roberts of Kansas was across the chamber talking to several Republicans trying to resolve their outstanding issues.
"As the two bill managers worked the floor old-school Senate style, Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois was delivering a speech on the DREAM Act, looking back at Stabenow and Sanders at one point in his remarks because their conversation had gotten so loud," Roll Call reported.
"Bernie appreciates the leadership of Sen. Stabenow on the farm bill. He also believes it is important to recognize that the overwhelming majority of Americans support labeling genetically modified foods," a Sanders spokesman said in a statement. "He is pleased that there will be a vote on his amendment to let states require straightforward labeling."
One of its first votes among the amendments was perhaps the most controversial, primarily to consumers, as the Senate rejected a proposal to trim spending in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps. SNAP funding now totals $80 billion a year, about 80 percent of the bill's spending. The recession has driven SNAP rolls to double over the last eight years to 46 million people.
The Democratic-led Senate defeated 56-to-43 a proposal by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-AL, which would have restored strict asset tests for food stamp eligibility. Households with gross incomes less than 130 percent of the poverty level and liquid assets below $2,000, or $3,250 for households with elderly or disabled people, qualify for SNAP.
But Sessions says the asset test is widely ignored by states that allow the asset limit to be exceeded if a person receives other welfare benefits. He said his amendment would have saved taxpayers $11 billion over 10 years.
A second Sessions amendment, to prevent states from getting bonuses for increasing registration of food stamp recipients, was also defeated.
Still another amendment, by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, would have restored the $4.5 billion in SNAP funding through a loophole practiced by 15 states giving low-income people as little as $1 dollar a year in home heating assistance, even when they don't have heating bills, in order to make them eligible for increased food stamp benefits.
While Gillibrand said those who get the help through the loophole need all the assistance they can, while Stabenow insisted, "Sending out $1 checks to everyone isn't the intent of Congress for the small number of states that do that. It is undermining the integrity of the program, in my judgment."
Of the 29 amendments decided June 19, 13 went to a roll call vote. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC, introduced three of the amendments, and each one was sent to defeat.
The most controversial amendment would make mandatory checkoff programs voluntary. It was defeated by a vote of 79-to-20. Another, to end loan guarantees in all USDA programs, was defeated 84-to-14. A third, which would cut expansion of spending for buildout of rural broadband Internet systems to 2008 levels, was defeated 57-to-42.
An amendment by Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, to establish a $250,000 adjusted gross income level to get farm payments, was defeated 84-to-15.
An amendment by Gillibrand and Sen. Olympia Snowe, D-ME, to eliminate the use of end-product price formulas for Class III milk and to require a study in order to update the current federal milk marketing order passed 66-to-33.
An amendment by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA, to cap gains on marketing loans to $75,000 per person passed 75-to-24.
One of the votes of the amendments was the source for a bit of humor from Roberts, considered the funniest of all senators. During the vote on an amendment by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-PA, to eliminate a cost-share program to assist farmers who want to convert their operations from conventional to organic production.
While voting on the amendment transpired, Roberts spoke to the Senate tally clerk, while the clerk's microphone was inadvertently open.
"Mark me down as undecided," Roberts was heard to say. The amendment failed 57-to-42.
The Senate was expected to vote on all the amendments and pass the bill by the end of the week. Action then swings to the House, where it could be introduced in the House Agriculture Committee in the next few days and passed by the full House sometime before the July 4 holiday recess.
The bill will spend about $969 billion over the next decade, with savings of $23 billion over the current farm bill that expires at the end of September. Leaders on both sides of Capitol Hill hope to send the bill to President Barack Obama for his signature before the August recess.
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.