Senators gearing up for farm bill debate, votes

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Jan. 30, 2014 - While President Obama is widely expected to receive a five-year farm bill (H.R. 2642) next week from Congress, some senators took time today to discuss the bill on the floor ahead of Monday's procedural vote.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., filed a cloture motion today that will require 60 votes for passage, and would clear the way for a vote on final passage on Tuesday. The House approved the bill Wednesday with a 251-166 vote.

The nearly $1 trillion 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).

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., told senators today the bill will provide a needed boost for beginning farmers and ranchers.

“Young farmers are coming back to the farm,” Heitkamp said. “Young farmers are engaging at levels with technological developments and techniques that heretofore were not available and really weren't trusted maybe by an older generation.”

Heitkamp said a new generation of producers is willing to make substantial investments in land and equipment, and the legislation would mitigate the risk for them with an enhanced crop insurance program.

She noted that the average age of a U.S. farmer is 57 years old, and a quarter of farmers are over the age of 65. “The 2014 farm bill makes critical investments to ensure that this next generation of farmers has an opportunity to enter the field by overcoming the high capital constraints and low production histories that make those early years the most difficult,” Heitkamp said. 

The bill would continue and fund the beginning farmer and rancher development program, which develops and offers education, training, outreach, and mentoring programs. In addition, she said the bill would expand eligibility of the programs to veterans.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told lawmakers that he appreciated inclusion of livestock disaster programs in the bill. “[The programs] are not to help you in good times,” Blunt said. “They are purely to help you in bad times.”

Blunt said the programs expired in 2011 when livestock producers were facing very difficult conditions, including herd liquidation that led to the lowest cattle numbers since 1952.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said the bill would achieve policy reforms while reducing the debt and deficit.

“Maintaining a safety net is critical to our nation's farmers and the bill before us eliminates direct payments while enhancing options for farmers to manage their risk,” Chambliss said. “We do so in a way that doesn't disadvantage one region over another, a formula I thought was lacking in versions of this bill in the last congress.”

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said, shortly after the House vote, that he will not support the legislation, arguing that it does not go far enough to provide necessary reforms to the nation's farm programs, federal nutrition programs, and burdensome regulations.

“We should not march backwards and pass a farm bill with more government subsidies, more regulations and more waste,” Roberts said.

Roberts said the proposed Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program repeats a “classic government subsidy mistake - setting high fixed target prices - which only guarantees overproduction with long periods of low crop prices, leading to expensive farm programs funded directly by taxpayers.”

In his opposition, Roberts, among other criticisms, listed insufficient cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), lack of changes to the country-of-origin labeling program, and lack of reforms to Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Act (GIPSA) regulations.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, reiterated his opposition to the bill today, saying the legislation would increase the payments available through the countercyclical program, the price-loss coverage, by 150 percent compared to what Congress has previously agreed upon.

“I haven't had anyone tell me a single legitimate reason why that change [was] made,” Grassley said.

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