House approves five-year farm bill, sends it to Senate

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Jan. 29, 2014 - The House approved the five-year farm bill (H.R. 2642) today, with a 251-166 vote, sending the nearly $1 trillion agricultural policy package to the Senate.

The Agriculture Act of 2014 would eliminate direct payments in favor of enhanced crop insurance, revise commodity supports, create a new dairy program, and make several other changes to agricultural policy, including an approximate $8 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

In support of the bill, 162 Republican lawmakers joined 89 Democrats, while in opposition, 103 Democrats joined 63 Republicans. The roll call vote tally can be viewed here.

House Agriculture Committee Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said getting the legislation through was “amazingly close” to a miracle, but acknowledged that many policy differences remain among lawmakers. “It may not have everything my friends on the right may and it may not have everything my friends on the left may want,” Lucas said. “But, it's a compromise.” 

On SNAP, several Democrats made a last-ditch effort to their colleagues to reject the bill. “This bill will do great damage to our most vulnerable citizens while keeping loopholes open for billionaires,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

Most of the SNAP reductions would be generated by restrictions on the definition of “categorical eligibility” for the program and reductions in the number of waivers from work requirements available for certain adult SNAP recipients.

Several Republicans would have liked larger SNAP cuts, but did not vocalize any opposition to the bill during the short floor debate.

Lets Talk Food

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a score for the bill Tuesday estimating that direct spending for authorized programs would total $956 billion over 10 years, of which $756 billion would be for nutrition programs. Relative to spending and revenues projected under CBO's May 2013 baseline, CBO said it estimates that enacting the legislation would lower budget deficits by $16.6 billion and increase revenues by $100 million over 10 years. This came in below the $23 billion in possible savings being touted by bill supporters, but they noted that the farm bill baseline had already been reduced by $6.6 billion.

The Senate is expected to approve the legislation as early as this week, and President Obama is expected to sign it into law shortly afterward. 

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said, “We are on the verge of achieving major reform.” Stabenow said she has no doubt the Senate will approve the bill. “The Senate has twice passed the farm bill with overwhelming bipartisan support,” she said.

Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said he was pleased with the “large, bipartisan and regionally-diverse vote in the House.”

After the vote, Lucas said the farm bill's passage is “a major event for me personally,” noting that to him, “there's nothing more important than a comprehensive farm bill.”

He said farmers now have certainty and a safety net for five more years, but “it took two and half years to get there.”

Lucas said producers need to work with their members of Congress “with even more intensity from this time on. I'm not sure how hard it will be next time.”

He noted that the compromise on the dairy provisions was a major turning point that helped get the farm bill across the finish line.

House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said while the dairy deal is not ideal for him, it does include a fundamental “red light” for producers when overproduction is imminent. “If I hadn't done what I did on dairy, we wouldn't have a bill,” he said, noting that it helped move forward compromise on farm payment limits as well.

Peterson also said this has been the most difficult farm bill he has ever been involved with. “I'm taking two to three weeks off to decompress.”

Before the vote, Peterson told lawmakers it is rare when Congress is actually able to get things done.

“I didn't get everything I wanted, the chairman didn't get everything he wanted; but that's how compromise works,” Peterson said. “But, at the end of the day, I believe my reservations are outweighed by the need to provide long term certainty for agriculture and nutrition programs and the many positive improvements and reforms included in the final bill.”

Peterson had hoped to get dairy market stabilization language in the bill, but said the margin insurance program plan may work. Still, he said he remains concerned about possible over-production.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who voted against the bill over opposition to food stamp reductions, said most Democrats that voted against it are urban Democrats. He noted that specialty and organic provisions in the bill encouraged several in his party to vote in favor, and that more California Democrats voted for it than Republicans. Peterson also praised efforts by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in gathering enough Democratic votes for the bill.

Wednesday's vote came after the spectacular failure of a farm bill in the House in June, on a 195-234 vote, where many Democrats and Republicans opposed the bill largely based on SNAP cut levels. Democrats wanted lower cuts while Republicans argued for deeper reductions.

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, voted for the bill after previously expressing concern over proposed higher cuts to SNAP.

“Although I do not agree with some provisions of the bill, I believe it was the right decision to vote for legislation that prevents devastating cuts to SNAP, improves access to nutritional offerings, and expands economic investment in low income and urban communities, as well as provides certainty and sound agricultural policies,” Fudge said. “On balance, I am pleased the 47 million Americans who currently rely on the program will not be subjected to the $40 billion in program cuts that were included in the nutrition bill passed by the House last September.”

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, voted for the bill despite it not including his amendment stripping out language which seeks to prohibit states from enacting laws that place conditions on the means of production for agricultural goods that are sold within its own borders, but are produced in other states.

“This has been a long time coming for a final farm bill to be completed,” said King. “However, I've had my reservations. The livestock industry was not treated right by Senate Democrats and I resolve to bring those issues to a proper conclusion.”

Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, D-Pa., said the bill includes authorization for $125 million for a national Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) that aims to bring jobs and affordable food retail options to urban and rural communities. The funding would continue providing start-up grants and affordable loan financing for food retailers, farmers markets, cooperatives and others who face obstacles to delivering and selling healthy foods.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said the bill would create a program to designate new national forest acreage suffering from insect and disease epidemics for expedited treatments, as well as permanently reauthorize nationwide stewardship contracting authority for the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

“Colorado's forests are part of our state's identity, but their health has been threatened by persistent drought conditions and the effects of a warming climate,” Bennet said. “Two consecutive summers of devastating wildfires in Colorado demonstrate why we need to actively manage our impaired and overgrown forests.”

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said the bill contains many of her priorities, including a reauthorization of the livestock disaster programs, options for farm-level commodity programs, and support for farmers experiencing wet seasons, among other things.

Applause over the bill's long-awaited passage came from several agricultural groups.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said, “It's been a tough road for the legislation during the past two years, but we are pleased with the clear bipartisan vote that prevailed.”

Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, said the legislation represents a “true compromise and I am pleased to have certainty for all Americans.”

The American Soybean Association (ASA) said it encourages the Senate to take up and pass the farm bill as quickly as possible. ASA President Ray Gaesser reiterated just how close the vote brings soybean farmers to a bill more than three years in the making.

“We are very, very close,” Gaesser said. “The House has done its part and come together across party lines to pass a good bill-a compromise bill-that represents the needs of soybean farmers and so many other aspects of agriculture.”

ASA said it has been active in support of the bill, which provides for multiple soybean farmer priorities, most notably a flexible farm safety net that includes a choice between price-based and revenue-based risk management tools and maintains the decoupling of payments from current planted acreage under both programs.

National Cotton Council Chairman Jimmy Dodson reiterated his appreciation for the bill's authorization of a new crop insurance product tailored to cotton that he said represents an important step to achieving a final resolution of the long-standing Brazilian subsidies case with the World Trade Organization.

Brazil has been challenging U.S. cotton subsidies through WTO for several years. After the farm bill vote, Peterson told reporters that Brazil subsidies their cotton industry at a higher level, and that during a recent meeting with Brazilian officials he was unable to “pin them down” on exactly what changes they want. “I told them to do what they want, but this [farm bill] is our answer,” Peterson said. “You're never going to satisfy them no matter what you do.”

Martin Barbre, president of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), said the bill would provide an adequate and flexible farm safety net, as well as a strong federal crop insurance program.

“More importantly, farmers need the certainty of a new five-year law, and we are happy to see this legislation includes many reforms we've supported and stressed over the years, reforms that make sense both for farmers and taxpayers,” Barbre said.

Barbre noted that the legislation would allow farmers to either maintain existing crop acreage base or to reallocate their current base to reflect average acres planted to covered commodities in 2009-2012, a reform that will make programs “more relevant and more defensible while not tying them to current-year plantings.”

The American Association of Crop Insurers, Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau and National Crop Insurance Services said lawmakers recognized that crop insurance should be enhanced and serve as a centerpiece of a farm safety net.

“Since crop insurance's rise to prominence, overall farm policy spending has gone down because farmers and private insurers help shoulder risk that was otherwise borne by taxpayers,” the groups said. “In addition, rural economies have benefited because crop insurance makes sure farmers quickly and accurately receive the help then they need it the most.”

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) said the bill would make attending an animal fight a federal offense and criminalize bringing a child to an animal fight.

“Animal fighting and those who fuel this horrific form of cruelty will not be tolerated in our society,” said Nancy Perry, senior vice president of ASPCA government relations. “Children need protection from the dangerous culture of animal fighting, as well as its associated illegal activities such as drugs, weapons and gambling.”

Perry said her group also was pleased that the final bill did not include the King amendment, which she said would have “gutted state animal cruelty laws across the country and prevented states from passing their own laws regarding the production of ‘agricultural products.'”

Sarah Gonzalez contributed to this report.

Updated: 5:30 p.m. EST, Jan. 29.

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