Senate approves farm bill by wide margin
By Larry Dreiling
The U.S. Senate June 11 voted 66-to-27 to approve a new five-year farm bill. The bill, measuring 1,150 pages long, will cost about $955 billion over the next 10 years.
Eighteen Republicans joined the Democratic majority to approve the bill.
“Because we worked across party lines to streamline programs, we were able to save tax dollars while investing in initiatives that help boost exports, help family farmers sell locally and spur innovations in new bio-manufacturing and bio-energy industries,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said following the bill’s passage.
“Congress needs to work across the aisle to help spur job creation and reduce the deficit. I’m proud that the Senate was able to accomplish that with this farm bill.”
Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the committee’s ranking Republican, said: “The Senate has produced a farm bill that meets the needs of those involved in agriculture production and the consumers of the crops produced by American farmers and ranchers. American agriculture producers deserve the certainty that comes with a strong five-year farm bill. I’m pleased that we’ve come up with a bill that will meet that need.”
The Senate-passed bill eliminates almost 100 federal programs and saves $24 billion relative to the extension of the 2008 farm bill. Overall, it addresses farm income support, land conservation, trade promotion, rural development, research, forestry, energy, horticulture, credit, crop insurance, and food and nutrition.
The Senate farm bill eliminates direct payments to farmers, reforms crop insurance, and limits payments to producers. The bill achieves $4 billion in savings by addressing waste, fraud, and abuse in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps.
In addition, the bill consolidates 23 conservation programs into 13 programs and reduces spending on those programs by an estimated $5.6 billion over the next 10 years. The legislation creates greater flexibility for federal and state foresters to meet stewardship, restoration and management challenges.
Among the notable “no” votes was that of former ag committee ranking Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who said the bill was “a return to trade and market distorting policies of the past, does not represent reforms achieved in last year’s Senate passed bill and does not cut enough wasteful spending.”
Roberts complained that the 2013 farm bill restores target prices eliminated from the 2012 Senate version of the farm bill.
“We had an opportunity to build upon the reforms of last year’s Senate passed bill. Instead, this bill looks in the rearview mirror for outdated policies that cause the farmer to plant for the government and not the market. We have seen the effects of this interference before with extended periods of depressed prices and excess supplies. In addition, several of these target prices are set so high that they may exceed a producer’s full cost of production.
“In this budget environment and at a time when we are looking to make smart cuts to farm programs, I cannot justify a subsidy program that can pay producers more than the cost of production and essentially becomes nothing more than an income transfer program, not a risk management tool.”
Funeral services for the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, brought the Senate to a halt the week before, causing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to move to end debate on the 2013 farm bill.
The announcement came as debate ground to a halt over amendments placed on hold by opponents to those amendments.
It all started when Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-LA, wanted to have an amendment on flood insurance added to the farm bill. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-PA, placed the hold on the amendment. Landrieu’s response was to hold up all other Republican amendments to the farm bill.
Her proposal, drafted with a bipartisan group of senators from flood-prone states, would delay some new flood insurance premiums from kicking in to prevent costs for buyers from increasing. Opponents say that it could make the government seek extra borrowing authority for the National Flood Insurance Program.
“My amendment has no score. It doesn’t cost the federal government anything, if this amendment were to pass,” Landrieu said. “It simply delays for three years a certain category of flood insurance premiums until an affordability study can be conducted, with zero score.
“Unfortunately, the senator from Pennsylvania, to my knowledge, is still holding up this amendment.”
Landrieu said she thought she had a 60-vote super-majority at hand to attach the flood insurance amendment to the farm bill, but Toomey’s hold wouldn’t allow her to offer it.
“If I have to stay on the floor until the end of the week, I am going to stay here, but I am going to object to any Republican amendment until we get…a vote,” Landrieu said.
Landrieu’s stand isn’t particularly surprising. She and her Republican counterpart from Louisiana, Sen. David Vitter, agreed with some reluctance to let a water resources bill go forward and pass the Senate without a vote on the same amendment when faced with opposition from Toomey.
Next came a series of requests to call up 10 amendments made by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, and make them pending for votes, but he faced objection from Landrieu and Stabenow.
Coburn said he sympathizes with Landrieu’s situation, adding that the problem with the Senate now is that too many senators are too cowardly to debate and vote on amendments or take a stand on a position.
“We’ve unwound because we don’t want to have real debates and real votes,” Coburn said.
Stabenow came to the floor to acknowledge there were still problems getting a final, universal list of amendments to debate. At one point in the debate as Coburn went through his amendments, Stabenow called out Coburn for trying to offer an amendment that had already been included in the farm bill. She said ideally, even if the cloture vote moves ahead, there would be a final list of amendments to debate.
“Right now we are at a point where we just have to get people to positively move ahead with a list we can work through,” Stabenow said.
To help this year’s debate move forward, Stabenow and Cochran included amendments adopted during last year’s 73-vote farm bill marathon.
In the end, Coburn praised Landrieu’s stand and called on senators to take tough votes, noting the number of times in years past that he’s offered amendments opposed by Cochran (primarily to appropriations bills).
“I offered a lot of amendments that he opposed and didn’t like, some of them affecting Mississippi. And he beat me every time, but he never said you can’t offer the amendment. So I think we’re at a seminal moment,” Coburn said.
“Let’s start moving things, and what I would do is call on the ranking member and the chairman, give me that list. Let me go fight for it. Let’s break this beaver dam in the Senate and let’s start acting like grown-ups again.”
There were two amendments passed during the week. First, the Senate voted to make modest changes to the way international food aid is delivered, a much scaled-back version of an overhaul proposed by President Barack Obama earlier this year.
Senators adopted an amendment by voice vote that would slightly boost dollars to buy locally grown food close to needy areas abroad. Currently, most food aid is grown in the U.S. and shipped to developing countries—an approach the Obama administration says is inefficient.
The Senate farm bill would allocate $40 million annually for a local purchase program—an increase from current dollars, but still a small portion of the $1.8 billion spent on food aid. The amendment sponsored by Sen. Mike Johanns, R-NE, and Sen. Chris Coons, D-DE, would boost that to $60 million annually.
Many food aid groups have long argued that buying food abroad would be quicker, less expensive and more beneficial to local farmers than the current method that benefits U.S. farmers and shippers.
The Obama administration in April proposed shifting almost half of the international food aid money to more flexible accounts that allow for cash purchases abroad, saying such a move would be more efficient.
But that proposal has so far fallen flat in Congress, where farm-state lawmakers who oversee agriculture spending and the farm bill have been reluctant to shift money away from American farmers. Farm and shipping groups launched strong campaigns against the proposal, lining up opposition in both the House and Senate even before Obama proposed the changes in his April budget.
Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, has said that changes are necessary as a humanitarian crisis in Syria and recent droughts in Africa have sapped food aid from other countries in need.
He said that buying food locally is often the only practical option in war-torn countries where trucking in large amounts of food is not safe and shipping U.S. food can often take several weeks. Only a small portion of the U.S. food aid budget allows for cash purchases abroad, including the added dollars for the local purchase program.
The Senate also passed an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-KS, which directs the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) to conduct research and development regarding a policy to insure alfalfa, and issue a report describing the results of the study. Moran’s amendment, which is budget neutral, passed the Senate by a vote of 72-to-18.
“Alfalfa is the nation’s fourth most valuable crop and it plays a significant role in our daily lives as a building blocks for milk and meat,” Moran said. “We need to take a good hard look at alfalfa and recognize its value to our country. We must study and develop something that works, saves the taxpayer money, and makes certain the land of plenty remains. I am pleased my colleagues joined me in supporting the development of a risk management tool for alfalfa production so producers can enjoy lower input costs and consumers can enjoy less expensive products on the grocery store shelves.”
Moran said the current crop insurance program, Forage Production APH, is severely inadequate; less than 10 percent of the acreage is enrolled in the program while enrollment for corn, soybean and wheat are all more than 80 percent. In addition, the program is only available in 23 states and limited counties in some of those states. Moran said it is essential that alfalfa has good crop insurance options available similar to the other major crops.
Moran said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) is supportive of alfalfa insurance but is currently prohibited from working on research and development without this amendment. Research leading to development of a crop insurance product that works for alfalfa will eventually allow producers to plant alfalfa and manage their risk, Moran said, giving animal agriculture less expensive inputs and allow farms to diversify their production.
Debate moves to the House floor in a few days, according to House Speaker John Boehner.
“The Majority Leader has announced that the House will consider the Farm Bill this month,” Boehner said in a release. “The Leader and I will encourage the Rules Committee to provide a fair process that will allow for a vigorous and open debate—the kind of process I pledged we would have more of in the House when I became speaker.
“I commend (House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK) for including a number of positive reforms in this bill, especially provisions ending direct payments and making changes to the Food Stamp program that both parties know are necessary. These reforms account for billions of dollars in mandatory program spending cuts.”
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at email@example.com.