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Published June 11, 2012, 10:36 AM

Senate votes to proceed on farm bill

Bill eliminates direct payments, expands crop insurance for produce

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek, Agweek

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted 90-8 on June 7 on a motion to proceed on the farm bill, and the White House issued a strong statement in support of the bill, although the administration wants further cuts to crop insurance and commodity program spending.

The vote was a victory for Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., especially since farm-minded southern senators voted for it. It is unclear whether any deal has been reached to satisfy rice and peanut growers, who have said the commodity title in the bill will not be a proper safety net for them.

The White House said it expects to work with Congress on a few concerns it has.

The senators who voted against the motion to proceed on the legislation are all Republicans known as fiscal conservatives: Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, John Cornyn of Texas, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Dean Heller of Nevada, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Mike Lee of Utah.

Two Republican senators did not vote: Dean Vitter of Louisiana and Mark Kirk of Illinois.

The Senate did not proceed immediately on the bill, but debate is expected over the coming week. Roberts has said he would like the bill finished by June 14, but lobbyists said that schedule is optimistic.

Stabenow and Roberts issued a news release urging the Senate to act quickly.

“We’ve cut mandatory spending by $23.6 billion,” Roberts said. “We’ve reformed, eliminated and streamlined USDA programs to the tune of more than 100 programs and authorizations eliminated. We’ve done it on a voluntary basis and in a bipartisan fashion. Simply put, this bill is common sense reform and needs to be approved now to provide certainty for our farmers and ranchers to make planning decisions and to help our economic recovery.”

The White House statement said the bill “makes meaningful progress toward the administration’s goals.”

“Notable reforms include eliminating the direct payment system; tightening payment and eligibility requirements; strengthening access to healthy, affordable food; protecting emergency food aid programs and authorities; and increasing flexibility in the delivery of international food aid,” the White House statement said.

The statement also said that the administration “looks forward to working with the Congress to achieve crop insurance and commodity program savings that are not contained in S. 3240, while at the same time strengthening the farm safety net in times of need and supporting the next generation of farmers.”

Food assistance

The White House noted that the administration “strongly supports the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a cornerstone of our nation’s food assistance safety net, which is why it was not subject to cuts in the president’s budget.”

But the statement did not list specific objections to the $4 billion in SNAP cuts that are in the bill. It also said that the administration will also work with Congress “to structure reporting requirements” and create the agricultural research foundation in the bill that would raise private sector money.

It’s unclear how many amendments there may be on the bill, but some — both germane and otherwise — have surfaced. Stabenow said she and Roberts are willing to consider any amendments, as they did in committee.

“If somebody has a problem with the bill, come to us,” Stabenow said, adding that members of the committee had brought forward more than 100 amendments and that 44 had been added.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said in a floor speech June 6 that he would support an amendment to make “minor” changes to the sugar program and that he and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., would offer an amendment making changes to crop insurance.

For farmers, the most controversial amendments will be those dealing with crop insurance.

The Senate bill continues the current crop insurance program and expands it for fruits and vegetables. Crop insurance is expected to cost $9 billion per year, making it the most expensive of farm programs and bringing calls for restrictions on the income levels of people who get subsidized premiums or on the amount of subsidy farmers can get and the amount of service fees and profits companies and agents can get.

Stabenow and Roberts said they would defend crop insurance against cuts.