Senate kicks off farm bill debate with crop insurance amendment

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 20, 2013 - The Senate began debate today on a five-year farm bill (S.954) with an amendment being offered to end subsidized crop insurance for tobacco companies.

The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act would set agricultural policy for the nation and replace the current one-year extension of the 2008 farm bill, which expires in September.

“It's a jobs bill… it's a trade bill… it's a reform bill… it's a conservation bill… and it's a kitchen table bill,” said Senate Agriculture, Forestry and Nutrition Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. at the start of the debate. “Because thanks to the farm bill, families all across America will sit down around a table tonight and enjoy the bounty of the world's safest, most abundant, and most affordable food supply.”

Lets Talk Food

Floor action comes after the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee approved the bill on May 14 with a 15-5 vote. The House Agriculture Committee, for its part, approved a largely different farm policy package on May 15 with a 36-10 vote.

The Senate floor debate, which will likely take up at least two weeks, is set to focus on anticipated battles over nutrition funding, dairy policy, and crop insurance.

Stabenow noted that the bill would end the direct payments program which “sends a check out to people regardless of whether they're even farming a crop.”

“We are streamlining programs to cut red tape, cracking down on fraud and abuse, and eliminating more than 100 unnecessary programs and authorizations,” Stabenow said.

Supporters say the bill would cut spending by $24 billion over 10 years, but the Congressional Budget Office has put the number closer to just under $18 billion.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., offered an amendment that aims to eliminate taxpayer subsidized crop insurance for tobacco production.

The amendment, which McCain said would save $333 million over 10 years, would direct all savings to be used to reduce the federal budget deficit.

Stabenow said the Senate would vote on the amendment, but she was not sure of the schedule.

McCain noted that in 2004, a federal tobacco buyout program ended most direct taxpayer support programs for tobacco production. However, McCain said USDA continues to offer “heavily subsidized crop insurance policies to tobacco farmers.” Last year, he said, USDA offered eight separate tobacco insurance products that cost $34.7 million in taxpayer subsidies.

Feinstein said, “It's time for the American taxpayer to get out of the business of subsidizing tobacco-once and for all. Tobacco costs our economy $200 billion in health care costs and lost productivity each year.”

Stabenow said she expects a lot of discussion on crop insurance as the debate continues, noting tobacco growers have not been subsidized with direct payments “for a long time and I would not support doing that.”

“We are moving in general away from that into an insurance model, and the cost is shared between the federal government and growers,” Stabenow said. “We want as many growers as possible to purchase crop insurance rather than having a disaster and then wanting us to pass a disaster assistance bill.”

Meanwhile, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said he was encouraged that the Senate is moving on the legislation.

“The bill would help revitalize the rural economy by supporting agricultural trade, local and regional food systems, renewable energy and biobased manufacturing,” Vilsack said. “It would maintain a firm commitment to conservation while streamlining programs and linking crop insurance payments to the nation's soil conservation and wetland protection goals. USDA looks forward to working with the Senate to achieve significant deficit reduction by building on these reforms to farm programs.

Another Senate bill amendment, offered by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., would allow Indian tribes to participate in certain soil and water conservation programs.

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