UPDATE: The House passed the Farm Bill Conference Report by a vote of 255-166 this morning. The measure now moves to the Senate for a vote.
Following years of legislative wrangling and stumbling, a new farm bill has been agreed to by conferees and sent to the Senate and House. A House vote on the bill could come as early as this week. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill in early February.
Considering “the environment we’ve worked in -- the budget situation, the ongoing deficits, the political rancor we’ve had to deal with (in Congress) and across the country -- not only is this a good farm bill, it’s almost a miraculous farm bill,” said Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, during a Tuesday morning press conference. “But that’s what farmers, ranchers and consumers needed.”
Don’t underestimate the magnitude of the reforms, said Lucas. Among them:
- Ending the direct payment program that costs some $4.5 billion annually.
“The old safety net is gone completely.”
- Moving to an insurance-oriented program.
“Benefits will only be paid out if you have a weather problem or a market failure, things that farmers and ranchers can’t control.”
Included in the bill are two provisions that farmers must choose between. First, a revenue insurance subsidy to help farmers bridge the time between “shallow loss” and a crop insurance check. The second subsidy -- pushed for particularly hard by farming interests in the South -- would provide farmers a subsidy if crop prices plunge.
The bill takes “our cotton friends from the old programs to STAX as part of being compliant with our WTO obligations” Further, said Lucas, the bill places “more money into crop insurance -- not only did we maintain the investment in crop insurance but we plowed some of the direct payment savings back into the enhancement of crop insurance programs.”
- Consolidation within conservation programs.
By going from 23 to 13 conservation programs at the USDA, $6 billion is expected to be saved.
While discussing dairy reforms, Lucas nodded towards House Speaker John Boehner’s robust dislike of supply management, which put him at sharp odds with Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee. In crafting a dairy program, “the three magic words were ‘no supply management,’” said Lucas.
Instead, the conferees settled on a gross margin insurance dairy program “that creates a new way to help protect our dairy friends from the challenges of the market and things they don’t control. Let’s be honest, setting drought issues aside, (agriculture) has had a really good decade. But it’s been a tough decade for dairy farmers. We’re trying to address that.”
Finding the "middle coalition"
- Nutrition program funding.
A major sticking point for the conferees -- and a sure bet to be a hot debate topic once the bill hits both chamber floors -- was how to handle nutrition program cuts. Food stamps currently go to nearly 48 million Americans and make up 80 percent of the USDA budget. The House farm bill called for some $40 billion in cuts to nutrition programs over a decade. The Senate version called for cuts a tenth of that amount. The conference compromise was $8 billion.
Lucas said the nutrition program reforms are “reasonable. While they try to address loopholes left over from 1996, they nonetheless will assure our fellow Americans who need help … they will get the help they need. That safety net is maintained.”
“We have a commitment on a new foundation on research, a $200 million commitment,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “That can be balanced with $200 million in investment from the private sector.”
- Beginning farmers.
“The one area of actual expansion (at USDA), is creating a new office to coordinate with veterans coming home,” said Stabenow. “Many of them are from small communities who want to go into farming. We’re expanding support for them.”
While there is much relief from most quarters that the legislation finally left conference, opponents have already begun beating their war drums.
On Monday, a coalition of livestock groups urged lawmakers to reject the bill due to costs associated with mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL). Stabenow claimed “surprise” at the opposition after the “same groups supported the Senate bill in 2012. … They came in wanting to repeal COOL. (Lucas) and I assessed this and the votes weren’t there in either body to do that. … I’m very disappointed they aren’t choosing to understand what a huge win this bill is for livestock.”
Lucas said the issues around COOL were potential deal-breakers. “We had to make a decision. Do we want a farm bill? Or do we want to take on an issue that could potentially blow the process sky-high?”
And there remain plenty of questions heading into the votes, Lucas acknowledged. “The challenge has always been in the House. My friends on the very conservative wing wouldn’t support anything -- they don’t want to spend any money on anybody for reason on any occasion. My friends on the left don’t really want to spend a lot of money on rural America on infrastructure issues -- they’re more social policy-oriented people.
“Can we create in the House a majority that is a coalition of the middle? My gut feeling, my reading of my colleagues, is ‘yes.’ … I’ve always known the folks at both ends of the spectrum won’t support us. But it’s the coalition of folks in the middle that want to get things done, who believe in safety nets, who believe in having enough to eat, who care about the future, who will pass this bill.”