The Senate passed a five-year reauthorization of the farm bill on Thursday. The nearly $500 billion bill sets conservation programs, funds food stamps, provides a safety net for farmers, and will cut nearly $24 billion from the deficit.
“This is not your father’s farm bill,” Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has said repeatedly. The bill would end direct payments to farmers and cut funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, by about $4 billion.
The legislation is projected to cost approximately $969 billion over 10 years and about $500 billion over its five-year authorization.
But the House is ready to take issue with what the Senate approved 64-35.
The cuts to SNAP will certainly not be enough for House Republicans. The House version will likely look for closer to equal cuts between the commodity title and the nutrition program—which they point out makes up about 80 percent of the farm bill. The long summer of the farm bill will also see an effort to try and bring Southern crop interests on board. They’ve complained about their treatment under the Senate version.
“One thing missing in the Senate farm bill, and that’s actually an attempt to get at where most of the spending is at,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. “We certainly have billions of dollars spent on people who do not qualify for food stamps, and only in Washington, D.C., could they say that’s not fraudulent.”
In other words, even though the Senate took a major step on the path to enacting a new farm bill, there’s still a long way to go. Farm-bill summer has just begun. The House Agriculture Committee won’t mark up its version of a bill until July 11. The real battle will come if and when there is a conference committee.
The two amendments with the widest margin of approval on the last day of voting were also the least likely to generate any actual outcome. A bipartisan amendment, joined at the last minute by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., that would require exhaustive reports on the looming defense sequester easily passed by voice vote. But the farm bill is far from final and even under the most optimistic circumstances the legislation wouldn’t be signed by the President until just weeks or months before the sequester is scheduled to kick in.
Another bipartisan effort to end public funding for political conventionspassed 95-4. That amendment would prevent the two parties from using amaximum of $17.7 million each from the Presidential Election Fund to payfor their nominating conventions. This provision will not affect the 2012 conventions because that money has already been appropriated.
This week, lawmakers approved several provisions like the one offered by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that would prevent millionaires collecting cash from conservation programs. In the last two years, millionaires received approximately $90 million from these programs.
Many lawmakers object to any limitations based on a farmer’s adjusted gross income, but the Senate’s broad 63-36 approval could convince both chambers to swallow the limitation, said Coburn spokesman John Hart.
“Now that it’s passed by the margin it did, it’s going to be hard for anyone in Congress to overrule,” Hart said. “Voting it down would be affirmatively offering welfare to millionaires. No one publicly is going to want to stand up and support that.”
Even the far more controversial limitations on crop-insurance payments for millionaires passed by a wider-than-expected margin. These would limit the wealthiest farmers from being able to receive subsidies to help them cover the cost of crop insurance.
This move did not jibe with the wishes of Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who did not want crop insurance restrictions in this reauthorization.
“My concern is that as we move to a risk-based system, we don’t undermine the reforms today,” Stabenow said, adding that she’d like to see the farm bill “play out” in order to gather enough information before limiting who gets crop-insurance subsidies. Her concern, she said, was that if larger farms don’t have the incentive to buy into crop insurance, it will put a greater burden on the little guys: “We want to incentivize farmers, support them to have skin in the game.”
During two weeks of floor consideration, the Senate considered amendments that would have brought its version closer to what the House will come up with, but those provisions were either withdrawn or shot down.
These fights are not permanently at rest — just napping until conference.