Crop insurance, food stamps and federal regulations at issue in farm bill
WASHINGTON – To the dismay of some low-income Missourians, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., voted for an amendment to slash funds for food stamps and convert it to block grants for states.
Upsetting some environmentalists, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is backing an effort to reassess a pesticide rule that farmers and ranchers oppose. She also wants to require the Environmental Protection Agency’s agriculture counsel to weigh in on behalf of farmers and ranchers on proposed new rules with an impact on agriculture.
And U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., representing a state with lots of big farms, is pushing an amendment to reduce crop insurance subsidies to well-off farmers. He argues that the wealthiest 4 percent of farm operations have collected about a third of all crop insurance-premium support in recent years.
When it comes to amendments to the farm bill under consideration this week in the Senate, senators from Missouri and Illinois are making some tough judgment calls – as always, with an eye to the political constituencies in their states and political parties.
It's not yet clear, though, exactly which amendments will be voted on by the Senate. Here are a few examples.
SNAP nutrition programs at issue
The farm bill includes about $4.5 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (a new name for the food stamp program) over a decade, in part by targeting abuses and pursuing efficiencies.
That sounds like a lot, but the sum is a fraction of the $80 billion annual cost of the food stamp program, which extends to about 46 million Americans. Provisions in the committee-approved bill could reduce food-stamp benefits by an average of $90 a month for nearly half a million households.
Last week, the Senate turned back an effort championed by tea party favorite U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would have made deeper cuts in SNAP funding (capping spending at $45 billion a year) and replaced the food aid program with block grants to the states.
Blunt voted for that amendment, telling reporters last week that “the nutrition programs need to have more oversight.” The Senate voted to table the Rand amendment, 65-33, with McCaskill and Durbin opposing it.
Blunt said he was not opposed to programs like SNAP, WIC and the school lunch program that help low-income people get food. But he pointed out that nutrition programs account for “an overwhelming part of the farm bill,” and he wants “to be sure that they work as well as they possibly can.”
Aside from the overall cuts to SNAP, the bill calls for $18.5 million a year for the Department of Agriculture to try to prevent abuses of food stamps and $100 million for projects to encourage more food stamp recipients to buy fruits and veggies.
Among the Missourians who object to any major cuts in the SNAP program is U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, who told the Beacon last week that “it is unconscionable to be talking about cutting funding for SNAP, especially in these tough economic times. It is wrong, and the Senate should not have an issue like that on the table.”
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., wants to offer an amendment to block the committee’s SNAP cutbacks and pay for it by lowering subsidies to highly profitable crop insurance firms.
Farm regulations are another big issue
In recent years, farmers and ranchers have chafed under regulations issued by the federal government – especially the EPA – that they contend are unnecessary and raise their costs.
McCaskill, facing a tight re-election battle this year, is sponsoring or backing several initiatives with Missouri farmers and ranchers in mind. Last week, she filed a possible amendment to the farm bill to require the EPA’s agriculture counsel to explain concerns about any proposed new rules that would impact agriculture and would force the EPA to respond in writing to any concerns raised by the adviser.
The senator said that instead of “batting down each unreasonable or unneeded regulation on our farms and ranches like a game of whack-a-mole,” this provision would give farmers and ranchers “a seat at the table when these decisions are made.”
McCaskill also joined U.S. Sen. Amy Klobochar, D-Minn., in filing a separate amendment to allow the agriculture secretary to name farmers or ranchers to the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, doubling the number of members with ag affiliations on that board.
But it is another amendment backed by McCaskill – a measure whose prime sponsor is U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C. – that has inspired the wrath of some environmental groups. The sponsors say the measure would eliminate a “redundant” EPA regulation that would force many farmers and ranchers to apply for permits to use already approved pesticides on their land. In 2009, a federal court ordered people who work in or near water to get permits; the new rules went into effect last October.
“There’s no reason to force Missouri’s farmers and ranchers to get permits to use pesticides that are already approved for safe use,” McCaskill said.
But the Natural Resources Defense Council and some other clean-water groups are opposing that amendment, saying that it is indeed needed. Arguing that the amendment “is not actually doing anything to help farmers,” NRDC blogger Mae Wu wrote that the Clean Water Act “already exempts agricultural irrigation return flows from the permitting process.”
Wu said the main reason for the permits was for spraying pesticides to kill mosquito larva in a lake or get rid of invasive animal species that populate a stream. “The permit gives us notice,” Wu said. “It lets a mom know that a swimming hole has been sprayed with a toxic chemical before her kids jump into it. It provides notice to a fisherman that the fish in the lake he likes to frequent have just been exposed to a pesticide.”
McCaskill also said she would support a possible amendment making it clear that the EPA shouldn’t be regulating “farm dust” – even though the EPA said that fall that it no longer intended to pursue such as rule as part of its “fine particle” pollution standards.
Crop insurance ‘on steroids’?
The farm bill’s bolstered crop insurance plan is another target for amendments. A recent report found that the wealthiest 4 percent of farm operations have collected about a third of all crop insurance-premium support in recent years.
Trying to stop that, and save the government about $1.2 billion over a decade, Durbin and U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., plan to offer an amendment to reduce crop-insurance subsidies to farmers 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.
Durbin said farmers “need crop insurance. In a bad year, they are wiped out. But take a look at the larger farms. With more than $1 million in sales each year, their average profit margin is 26.8 percent. There is an economy of scale. There is money to be made.”
The amendment does not exclude anyone from participating in crop insurance, nor does it eliminate subsidies. But it reduces the amount of premium support for those with an adjusted gross income at or above $750,000 by 15 percentage points on all buy-up policies. Farmers affected by the amendment would still have on average nearly half of their crop insurance premiums paid for by the federal government.
“We have many large farms in Illinois, certainly across the country, but we have many smaller farmers, too,” Durbin said. “What is the difference? On a smaller farm with lower income, there is less return, less profit, higher risk.”
McCaskill said she had not yet analyzed the Durbin-Coburn amendment and had not yet taken a position. Blunt said he will take a look at Durbin crop insurance amendment, but he had some concerns.
“Crop insurance serves a good purpose,” Blunt told reporters last week. “Already, with the farm programs that relate to agriculture and rural America and farm families, we’re cutting $40 billion out of the farm bill. … I don’t know that you can cut more than $40 billion out of these farm programs and still have the kind of safety net that farmers need.”
Blunt added: “My inclination is that a $40 billion cut in farm programs is a big cut, and if you want to go further than that, you’d better be sure that your facts add up.”