House panel approves farm bill; Senate debate begins
By Larry Dreiling
The House Agriculture Committee May 15 approved its version of a five-year farm bill that would cut likely spending for federal farm programs and nutrition programs by an estimated $39.7 billion over the next decade.
The bill advanced to the full House on a vote of 36 to 10, with eight Democrats and two Republicans voting against the bill.
Meanwhile, floor debate began May 20 in the Senate on its version of the farm bill.
The House bill would cut around $4 billion a year from food aid and farm spending, while the Senate bill would trim roughly $2.4 billion.
Those reductions include more than $600 million in yearly savings from across-the-board cuts that took effect earlier this year.
Much of the savings in the bills comes from eliminating annual direct payments, which are frequently criticized because they aren’t tied to production or crop prices.
Part of those savings would go toward the deficit reduction, but the rest of the money would create new programs and raise payments for some crops.
The Senate bill would eliminate direct payments immediately, while the House bill would phase out payments to cotton farmers who rely on the program over the next two years.
Like the Senate bill, the House measure also includes concessions to Southern rice and peanut growers who also depend on direct payments.
The bills would lower the threshold for rice and peanut subsidies to kick in when prices drop.
There are protections for other crops as well.
Both bills would boost federally subsidized crop insurance and create a new program that covers smaller losses on planted crops before crop insurance kicks in, favoring Midwestern corn and soybean farmers. Midwest producers most often use crop insurance.
The House committee made no changes to payment programs in the bill, and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK, has made no apologies for broadening some farm programs, while balancing calls from House conservatives to cut nutrition programs with Senate Democrats who are reluctant to touch them.
“I expect it to come from all directions,” Lucas said of the nutrition programs debate.
“Let’s give certainty to an industry that has been a bright spot in an otherwise dismal economy,” he said as he opened the committee meeting to approve amendments or “mark up” the bill.
The majority of cuts in the House bill are in the domestic food aid program.
The committee rejected a Democratic amendment to retain the funding by a vote of 27 to 17.
The new legislation achieves the cuts partly by eliminating an eligibility category that mandates automatic food stamp benefits when people sign up for certain other programs.
It would also save dollars by targeting states that give people who don’t have heating bills very small amounts of heating assistance so they can automatically qualify for higher food stamp benefits.
Republicans argued that the cut is small relative to the size of the program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and that people who qualify for the aid could still sign up for it but wouldn’t be automatically enrolled.
Debate over the cuts turned into something akin to a Sunday morning Bible study class discussion from the Book of Matthew on helping the poor.
It started with Rep. Juan Vargas, D-CA, in opposing them: “When I was hungry you gave me food. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink.”
Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-TN, then quoted the verse that the “poor will always be with us” in his defense of cuts to the food stamps program.
Fincher said obligations to take care of the poor should be left to churches, not the government.
Several other Republicans then proceeded to speak about their Christianity and said the Bible encourages people to help each other but doesn’t dictate what the federal government should do.
“We should be doing this as individuals, helping the poor,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-CA.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-MA, who offered the amendment to do away with the cuts, said eliminating the nutrition funding would just make the poor “more vulnerable and more miserable.”
“Christians, Jews, Muslims, whatever—we’re failing our brothers and sisters here,” McGovern said.
Following the amendment’s failure, Lucas—his soft-spoken cattleman’s demeanor on full display—said: “A farm bill is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. You have many pieces that have to fit together in order to create that product.”
More than 47 million people used the SNAP program last year with the cost more than doubling since 2008.
The rolls rose rapidly because of the economic downturn, rising food prices and expanded eligibility under President Barack Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus law.
The House committee also:
Voted to keep a new, voluntary risk management insurance program for dairy producers in the bill.
Those who choose the new program would have to participate in a market stabilization program that could dictate production cuts when oversupply drives down prices.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-OH, has called the program “Soviet-style.”
Voted to require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow the organic industry to organize and promote itself as an industry, similar to the familiar checkoff campaigns like “Got Milk?” and “Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner.” Some supporters of traditional agriculture opposed the amendment.
Voted to finance a public-private partnership to attract community investment in helping retailers stock healthier foods.
Voted to bar California and other states from exporting cage standards and other restrictive laws to agricultural producers in other states.
Amendment sponsor Steve King, R-IA, says California’s law violates the clause in the Constitution that gives Congress the power to regulate commerce among the states.
“This is an adventure that began two years ago,” Lucas said toward the conclusion of the committee markup, “and we have an adventure ahead of us in June.”
Senate debate begins
The full Senate started their debate examining cuts to the federal crop insurance program.
The debate began with the Obama administration issuing a statement saying it wants to see more cuts to crop insurance and payments for rice and peanut producers.
The White House did not specify how large a cut it was seeking.
An estimated $15.8 billion was spent on crop insurance payments for the 2012 crop year after a drought destroyed many crops, up from $9.4 billion in 2011.
The government subsidizes about 62 percent of farmers’ insurance premiums and also subsidizes the insurance companies that sell the policies.
The cost of the program has risen in recent years because of bad weather events and record-high crop prices.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, opened the debate saying she expected several amendments to be offered on the crop insurance program.
Stabenow and other farm-state senators have argued that crop insurance should be maintained and even expanded because it protects farmers when they need it most and because farmers contribute some of their own money to the program.
Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, offered the first crop insurance amendment, proposing an end to $33 million a year in insurance policies for tobacco farmers.
A buyout for tobacco farmers enacted nine years ago is phasing out government payments to tobacco farmers, but many of them still receive crop insurance.
“It turns out Joe Camel’s nose has been under the tent this whole time in terms of crop insurance subsidies,” McCain said, referring to a character that used to appear on packs of Camel cigarettes.
The Senate debate will occur in dribs and drabs, unlike the two-day debate last year on the abortive attempt to enact a farm bill.
On May 21, the Senate dug into their version of the SNAP debate, with Sen. Pat Roberts, R-KS, offering an amendment that would have increased cuts in SNAP payments from $4.1 billion over 10 years to nearly $31 billion.
The Roberts amendment wrapped in two major proposals in eliminating ties between the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and eligibility for SNAP. It also would have eliminated the link between SNAP eligibility and acceptance in other state-based welfare programs.
“By eliminating the LIHEAP loophole, we’ll save taxpayers $12 billion, which is an $8 billion addition compared to the current version of the farm bill,” Roberts said.
The Roberts amendment also tied SNAP benefits to those receiving cash assistance only as part of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Currently, states can automatically enroll recipients of the TANF program in SNAP, a procedure known as categorical eligibility. At the encouragement of USDA, Roberts claimed states are exploiting this provision by providing minimal TANF assistance to recipients in the form of informational brochures and 1-800 numbers, which then qualifies them for SNAP benefits. Roberts’ amendment required that a recipient qualify specifically for cash assistance to automatically receive SNAP food benefits.
“Categorical eligibility, simply known as ‘Cat-El,’ was designed to help streamline the administration of SNAP by allowing households to be certified as eligible for SNAP food benefits without evaluating household assets or gross income,” Roberts said. “However 42 states are exploiting an unintended loophole of TANF, and expanding the aid beyond those it was designed to help.”
Finally, the Roberts amendment would have terminated the ongoing stimulus spending, which continues to provide extra funding to increase monthly SNAP food benefits.
Democrats defeated the measure 58 to 40 with the votes of two Republicans—Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. Oklahoma’s senators were not present to vote following the tornado tragedy in that state.
The language in the Roberts amendment was comparable to proposed SNAP savings in the House version of the farm bill, but even higher. The House plan cuts $20.5 billion over 10 years.
Stabenow was among those voting against the amendment, displaying her power to hold together the cuts to the nutrition program her committee had previously agreed to.
Stabenow also led opposition to an amendment by fellow Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who had sought to fully reauthorize SNAP at the current levels, without any cuts.
Gillibrand proposed to recoup the $4.1 billion in cuts by taking that same amount of money out of payments to crop insurance companies. Twenty-nine Democrats sided with 41 Republicans to reject Gillibrand’s amendment 70 to 26.
The Senate floor debate is expected to continue into the next week, as several amendments have been proposed. Both bills are expected to be voted upon in June, with a conference debate expected to be completed before Congress leaves for its August recess.
Mary Claire Jalonick of The Associated Press contributed to the report.
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at email@example.com.