Senate continues farm debate today with more amendments

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 22, 2013 - The Senate will continue its march forward Thursday on debating amendments to a five-year farm bill (S.954) after rejecting an attempt Wednesday to end the U.S. sugar program and one to convert the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) into a state block grant program.

 The first action of the day will be on an amendment, offered by Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., which would allow states to have the right to require labels on any food or beverage containing ingredients that have been genetically modified.

“All over this country, people are becoming more conscious about the foods they are eating and the foods they are serving to their kids and this is certainly true for genetically engineered foods,” Sanders said. “I believe that when a mother goes to the store and purchases food for her child, she has the right to know what she is feeding her child.”

Sanders said about 82 percent of the U.S. population believe that labeling is needed for genetically engineered ingredients, and that it is not a “radical concept.”

No senator spoke in support or opposition of the amendment.

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Prior to Sanders' amendment introduction, the Senate rejected an amendment, on a 45-54 vote, that aimed to essentially end the U.S. sugar program, which imposes limits on imports of sugar. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., along with two Republican senators, offered the amendment.

Shaheen said the amendment would reform domestic supply restrictions, lower price support levels, and ensure adequate sugar supplies at reasonable prices.

“The sugar program is broken and this is a smart, common-sense fix,” Shaheen said. “Right now, American families are footing the bill for an outdated program that offers a sweet deal to a small group of sugar growers and processors. All the while, we're losing manufacturing jobs all over the country as a result.”

Shaheen said that sugar prices have “soared to record highs” since 2008, and has continued a push for candy manufacturers to move outside the United States.

Speaking in favor of the sugar policy, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said there has not been a “dramatic increase” in the price of U.S. sugar and there has not been a loss of processing jobs.

“Really nothing could be further from the truth,” Heitkamp said. “And, in fact, we've seen historic low prices.”

She said the U.S. sugar price was 26 cents per pound in April and the international price was 22 cents.

Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., weighed in on opposing the amendment.

“The proposed changes would undermine the policy in our domestic industry by transferring American sugar-producing jobs to other countries,” Cochran said. “Those producers are less efficient and heavily-subsidized. U.S. sugar policy has operated at zero cost for the past decade.”

In addition, the Senate rejected, on a 36-60 vote, an amendment, offered by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., which sought to convert the federal SNAP program into state block grants.

Inhofe said his amendment would divide the grant money among states proportionately based on the number of individuals living under the federal poverty line. He said it would save $300 billion over 10 years.

“Now, I feel very strongly about this,” Inhofe said. “This is one of those issues that people are talking about all over the country. I know when my wife comes back and she talks about people who are there perfectly capable of working coming up and buying things like beer and all this, using food stamps, this is something that offends Democrats, Republicans, liberals, and conservatives alike.”

In opposition, Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the amendment would cap the amount of SNAP assistance at more than half of the current levels.

“It would mean absolutely devastating results for millions of families that are trying to feed their children,” Stabenow said. “And if you consider the fact that about 47 percent of those who get help right now are children, almost half of the food help in this country is for children, and then you add to that another 17 percent for senior citizens and the disabled, and you put that together, you find that this amendment would be insufficient to even cover those individuals alone.”

The topic of crop insurance also was discussed as senators offered amendments. 

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill., offered an amendment with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that seeks to reduce the level of premium subsidies for crop insurance policies by 15 percent for farmers with an adjusted gross income of more than $750,000.

“Let me tell you what's behind this,” Durbin said. “Crop insurance is not a real insurance program by private-sector standards. In other words, the premiums being paid in by the farmers do not create a reserve large enough to cover the amounts that are paid off or paid out for losses each year.”

Durbin said the federal government makes up the difference and, on average, taxpayers pay 62 percent of the premiums while farmers pay 38 percent.

Speaking in opposition, Stabenow said that while 2012 was one of the worst drought years on record, Congress did not have to approve an ad hoc disaster assistance package “because crop insurance works.”

“When you get crop insurance, you get a bill to pay,” Stabenow said. “Now, we share in that cost to make sure there is a discount to make sure they can afford the bill. But they get a bill. They don't get a check.”

 Also on crop insurance, Shaheen, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Ark., introduced two amendments aimed at bringing more transparency and limitations to premiums.

The first amendment from Shaheen and Toomey seeks to cap crop insurance premium subsidies at $50,000, which they said would reduce the deficit by about $3.4 billion over 10 years.

“Capping crop insurance subsidies will save taxpayers billions and help reduce our deficit,” Shaheen said. “These subsidies represent some of the most egregious examples of excess government spending.”

Toomey said there is no cap on crop insurance so it “irrationally pays out the most to those who need it the least.”

The other amendment, from Begich and Flake, aims to permit the USDA to disclose the names and amounts of premium support of crop insurance policy holders.

The senators said the federal government spends almost $9 billion a year on crop insurance subsidies but there is no way to publicly track who receives the payouts.

Finally, the Senate agreed, by unanimous consent, to amendments by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., to make SNAP-related grocery deliveries to homebound seniors, and by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., to end SNAP eligibility for end food stamp eligibility for convicted violent rapists, pedophiles, and murderers.

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