Senate's farm, nutrition bill offers cornucopia of controversy
WASHINGTON – The list of issues seems as long as the 1,010-page bill: a chicken compromise; a $969 billion price tag; a pop for popcorn; pork drama; “crop insurance on steroids”; duplicate catfish inspectors; Midwestern vs. Southern farmers.
The Agriculture, Food and Jobs Act aims to set the table for U.S. food and agriculture policy over the next decade. It would, by some accounts, save taxpayers nearly $24 million from the continuation today’s farm and nutrition programs. And it’s an example of the rarest of congressional creatures: a bipartisan bill.
But, for the moment, the farm bill – which the Senate started to work on last week – is stuck in a bog of nearly 300 threatened amendments. Without an agreement to limit them, the legislation might be put on the back burner because it would take too long to finish.
“Hopefully, we can actually debate the farm bill and get the bill passed,” said U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who generally supports the bill but wants GOP amendments to be debated. “It would save almost $24 billion over the next 10 years.”
Those reductions mainly reflect the elimination of direct payments to farm landowners, which cost about $5 billion a year, as well as reductions of about $4.5 billion over a decade from the food-stamp program. The administration of President Barack Obama supports the general approach but opposes reductions in the food-stamp program and wants deeper cuts to crop insurance and some other farm programs.
Given the key role of farming and agricultural exports to Missouri’s economy, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said last week that “it is very important that we not play political games around the farm bill and all come together behind this bipartisan compromise.”
Added McCaskill in a phone conference with reporters: “We have made cuts to the food stamp program, cuts to the conservation program, and cuts to the direct payment program to our commodities. At the same time, I think we have put important provisions in here that will provide a safety net to farmers through our crop insurance program, and also made some changes into our dairy title that will help diary programs in Missouri maintain reasonable margins in the face of very, very high costs.”
Agriculture is also extremely important to Illinois. While Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., supports the bipartisan thrust of the committee bill, he and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., plan to offer an amendment to reduce crop-insurance subsidies to farmer operations with an adjusted gross income over $750,000.
“How can we ask Americans to share in any sacrifice, to cut spending, or reduce the debt if we cannot summon the political will to ask the wealthiest farm operations to take such a modest cut in the federal subsidy for crop insurance?” asked Durbin.
Tension between Midwest, Southern farmers
The dispute between the Midwest and South that is complicating the Senate’s consideration of the bill stems from proposed changes in agricultural subsidies and insurance.
The committee’s bill would end the current $5 billion a year in direct payments to farmers (whether or not they actually plant crops) as well as programs that reward farmers when prices fall below a targeted level.
Instead, the government would establish what is called a “shallow loss" program to help farmers when revenues fall between 11 percent and 21 percent below five-year averages. Instead, the committee approach puts greater emphasis on subsidized crop insurance. Farmers' regular crop insurance would pay for losses above 21 percent.
A report by the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) at the University of Missouri at Columbia analyzed the impact of three key provisions of the Senate’s farm bill. The study found that:
- Eliminating the direct and countercyclical payment (DCP) and average crop revenue election (ACRE) programs would reduce government farm program outlays, farm income and agricultural land values, but would have only modest impacts on agricultural commodity markets.
- By itself, eliminating DCP and ACRE would result in a small reduction in the total area devoted to major program crops and marginally higher crop prices.
- The new agriculture risk coverage (ARC) and stacked income protection plan (STAX) programs would make payments when per-acre revenues fall sufficiently below benchmark levels. Both programs cover relatively “shallow” losses; other crop insurance policies would continue to provide protection against larger losses.
Corn and soybean growers, who are more subject to natural disasters and rely on crop insurance, tend to back the changes. Shane Kinne, a representive of the Missouri Corn Growers, said last week that “our farmers and growers found it important that in light of the deficit situation, and the high prices that it is important that direct payments go away, and we think that there are some other programs in place in this version of the bill that provide a proper safety net.”
On a conference call last week with McCaskill, Taylor Bryant of the Missouri Soybean Board agreed with Kinne that farmers “definitely have a lot of problems lying ahead of them” and the committee’s farm bill would offer “strong safety nets and strong insurance policies” against devastating losses.
But the South’s rice and peanut growers, who tend to be hit harder by price fluctuations, contend that the revised safety net doesn’t work as well for them. To try to appease Southern senators, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., has been working with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., on an amendment to reinstate some farm subsidies eliminated in the committee bill, and would restore and raise target prices for major commodities by 5 to 7 percent.
Political ‘games’ with election-year amendments?
As of the weekend, the farm bill had stalled in the Senate as party leaders tried to work out a deal on how many amendments would come to a vote. The outcome was unclear.
“The last time a farm bill was on the floor, six years ago, it took three weeks,” said Blunt. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., “apparently would like to take a handful of days. I don’t know that it will happen” because so many amendments are out there.
Blunt said he wants to see votes on many of the amendments, but is “generally supportive of the bill. There are some things that I hope will be changed, in the final version we vote for or in the final bill.”
But McCaskill argues that many of the planned amendments aren’t germane to agriculture or nutrition. “I wish we’d quit fooling around with all of these irrelevant amendments that are being offered and get at the meat of the matter,” she said.
“We have amendments in this bill dealing with taxes, dealing with Pakistan, dealing with federal quantitative easing. We have amendments in this bill dealing with political conventions. We have amendments in this bill dealing with collective bargaining. I mean, it’s ridiculous what people try to do around here these days.”
Pressed on her position on various potential amendments, McCaskill – facing a tough re-election battle this year – told reporters last week that she would “look forward to you [journalists] getting my opponents on the record in terms of every single amendment also.”
But Blunt says “part of the price of being in the Senate is that you’re supposed to be here and take some difficult votes.”
Next: Crop insurance, EPA farm regulations, dairy programs and milk prices.