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Published April 30, 2012, 10:17 AM

Senate ag committee passes farm bill

WASHINGTON — The Senate Agriculture Committee passed a farm bill on April 26 that is remarkable for receiving a strong committee vote and for the unhappiness and isolation of committee members representing the South, who do not think the bill treated cotton, rice and peanut farmers fairly and did not vote to send the bill to the full Senate.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — The Senate Agriculture Committee passed a farm bill on April 26 that is remarkable for receiving a strong committee vote and for the unhappiness and isolation of committee members representing the South, who do not think the bill treated cotton, rice and peanut farmers fairly and did not vote to send the bill to the full Senate.

The bill has a long road to travel to become law because it would have to be passed by the Senate, the House Agriculture Committee, the full House, reconciled with the House bill, pass both houses again and be signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The most important amendment added to the bill was one offered by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., to continue energy programs at the Agriculture Department with $800 million in mandatory funding over five years.

Stabenow was able to tell Conrad that the final Congressional Budget Office score of the bill included savings of $24.7 billion in direct savings over 10 years — more than the $23 billion to which the committee has committed itself — and that he would be able to fund his energy program out of that money. That meant that the committee could accept an amendment from Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., to remove the use of an upland cotton subsidy to fund Conrad’s amendment.

The amendment was approved by voice vote but Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., asked that the record reflect his opposition.

The bill also included an amendment authored by Conrad authorizing a voluntary land purchase program for eligible land impacted by a terminal (closed basin) lake by providing grants to the states, which would benefit landowners impacted by flooding in the Devils Lake Basin and prairie pothole region in North Dakota.

The bill cuts more than $23 billion in spending, ends the direct payments and countercyclical programs and establishes a new commodity program.

The vote was 16-5 of all committee members including those voting by proxy, 12-4 among those present.

Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., John Boozman, R-Ark., and Chambliss criticized the commodity title of the bill during the markup session, and voted against it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also voted against it by proxy.

But three-quarters of the members were in favor, and Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Roberts, who were partners in writing the bill, said they think the vote was a strong one that should lead Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to bring it to the floor.

Stabenow said at a news conference after the vote that she had spoken to Reid during a noontime break in the markup and thinks it will be a “few weeks” before Reid brings it up.

McConnell joined his fellow southerners in opposing the bill, but Roberts told reporters he did not believe that McConnell opposed it from the position of Republican leader. Roberts also emphasized that the April 26 vote showed that Republicans and Democrats can still work together.

The bill is called “The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012” and Stabenow said they were committed to sending it to President Obama before the current law expires on Sept. 30.

Bipartisan support

One advantage Stabenow and Roberts may have in pushing the bill forward is the bipartisan outpouring of affection, even by Senate standards, for Stabenow, the first woman to chair the agriculture committee when a farm bill is being written.

Stabenow also said at several points that the revised mark, which contained some changes from the original mark to try to make the bill more acceptable to the southerners, was only “step one” in the process.

The real challenge in bringing the bill to the floor will be changing the commodity title to get the support of Southern senators, who have traditionally been strong supporters of farm bills.

Chambliss, who was ranking member during the 2008 farm bill debate, told Agweek after the vote that he and Conrad had managed to overcome regional differences in writing the commodity title then, but that “this time around, it didn’t happen.”

One of the problems is that rice and peanuts are not grown and marketed in the same way as other commodities and so crop insurance and the new “shallow loss” program that corn, soybean and other growers will use cannot be so easily adapted to rice and peanuts.

Chambliss said the Congressional Budget Office had found that rice growers would give up 70 percent of their subsidy money under the bill, while corn growers would lose only 22 percent.

At the news conference, Stabenow and Roberts signaled that they want to find a way to appease, if not satisfy the southerners, but only within the budget.

“We are committed to maintaining the savings in the bill,” Stabenow said, adding that it was well known that moving away from the direct payments program would disproportionately affect the South.

Stabenow said that crop insurance is “not fully developed” for a number of crops, including the specialty crops that are grown in Michigan as well as for rice and peanuts. Roberts added that “within the budget we will address every concern we have,” but he also noted that Kansas farmers who used to grow wheat now grow cotton, and hinted that southerners would have to get used to shifting crop patterns.

The southern senators also objected to much stronger payment limitations that were inserted into the bill by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. Under this new limitation regime, individuals with an income of more than $750,000 or married couples with an income of more than $1.5 million will not be eligible for subsidies. Commodity subsidies will be limited to $50,000 per person, and there will be stricter rules about who will be considered actively engaged in farming.

The bill did not, however, place restrictions on crop insurance premium subsidies.

Praise and criticism

Conrad and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., praised Stabenow and Roberts for including a provision allowing farmers to choose between a county trigger and individual farm revenue trigger for commodity subsidies. Stabenow noted that Baucus had made sure the bill includes a livestock disaster aid title with a 10-year baseline.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., issued statements late in the day that they were encouraged by the Senate Agriculture Committee action.

Lucas commended Stabenow and Roberts for advancing the bill, and said he would work with Peterson “to write the House bill in the coming weeks.”

But Lucas added, “I am disappointed by the Senate bill’s commodity title because it does not work for all of agriculture.”

“It fails to provide producers a viable safety net and instead locks in profit for a couple of commodities,” Lucas said. “I have made it clear that my chief priority is making certain that the commodity title is equitable and provides a safety net for all covered commodities and all regions of the country. A shallow loss program is not a safety net. It does not provide protection against price declines over multiple years and it does not work for all commodities.”

Peterson said April 26 that the House Agriculture Committee should move quickly to mark up the bill.

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