The farm-bill conference report, which passed the House last week, looks ready to sail through the Senate this week and be signed by President Obama.
Why, after three years of hearings and conflict—four, if you count the initial hearings when the Democrats were still in charge of the House—is the Agriculture Act of 2014, as it is formally known, finally about to become law?
First, there's the obvious. Just as last year, the nation is facing the dairy cliff. If the debate were to drag on, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack would be forced to implement the 1949 permanent dairy law, and milk prices would spike within months.
But beyond that, the past week has shown the tremendous broad range of support that undergirds farm bills. When Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., went to the House chamber last week during the vote to make sure the bill passed, she carried with her a list of more than 400 organizations that had backed the bill.
Critics on the right and the left say that such an outpouring of endorsements shows that the farm bill is filled with government spending, but it also shows the importance of the farm bill—and the activities of the Agriculture Department—in every corner of the country. As Vilsack often says, USDA does much more than pass out farm subsidies. It provides purchasing power and food for low-income people in cities and it allows for the inspection of meat, poultry, and eggs. It also pays for financing electricity, telephones, and the Internet in rural America.
The nutrition title, which makes up more than 70 percent of the spending in the bill, was expected to be the most controversial part of the legislation, but antihunger activists split over it. The Food Research Action Center and a coalition of New York antihunger activists opposed the bill over the provision to cut food stamps—formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP—by $8.6 billion over 10 years.
But Robert Greenstein, president of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, endorsed the bill noting that it eliminates the "draconian" $39 billion cut House Republicans had proposed and tightens up on the "Heat and Eat" benefit calculation that "most people would view as a loophole." He also pointed out that the bill addresses public hostility to the program by forbidding beneficiaries from deducting medical marijuana from income to increase benefits, barring lottery winners from participation, and making it harder for college students to qualify. Greenstein also noted that the nutrition title includes provisions designed to provide SNAP households with more access to healthy food outlets—such as farmers' markets—and requires retailers that participate in SNAP to offer a healthy variety of foods for sale.
The House vote on the bill was 251 in favor, 166 opposed, and 14 not voting. Last June, when a comprehensive farm bill failed on the House floor, only 24 Democrats voted for it. But lowering the food-stamp cut, changing the dairy title, and emphasizing provisions helping the fruit and vegetable organic sectors raised the Democratic number voting in favor of the conference report to 89. A larger number of Democrats—103—voted against it, but those voting for it included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus and had represented Pelosi on the conference committee. Fudge called it a balanced bill worthy of support, and a Bloomberg analysis showed that half the Black Caucus voted for the bill.
For all the fuss that Republicans made over the bill for the past three years, the vote on the conference report wasn't much different than the vote on the comprehensive House bill that was defeated. Last June, 171 Republicans voted for the bill, 62 voted against it, and one did not vote. Last week, 162 Republicans voted for the conference report, 63 voted against it, and six did not vote.
The Republicans, who have many farmer constituents and supporters, were no doubt relieved that the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, and all the major commodity groups endorsed the bill. The new legislation ends the $4.9 billion direct payments that crop farmers had been getting whether prices are high or low. Northern and southern commodity groups warred for the past three years over how the program to provide them money in bad times would be constructed. In the end, the corn, soybean, rice, and peanut groups all accepted a program that will offer them a choice between one option that would pay them for losses not covered by crop insurance or another based on target prices. The payments will be made on a farmer's historic, though updated, base acreage rather than on current planted acres.
A wide range of conservation groups praised the bill for requiring farmers who get subsidized crop insurance to comply with federal conservation standards. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition complained bitterly that the bill's limits on payments to big farmers were not strict enough, but it ultimately said the conservation provisions warranted passage. Only the Environmental Working Group urged Congress to defeat the bill on the grounds that the improvements in conservation programs were not enough to outweigh other factors, such as the nutrition cut and subsidies to big farmers.
The dairy issue—highlighted by the opposition of House Speaker John Boehner to what he called "Soviet-style" supply management—was resolved with a provision that would allow the government to make payments or buy dairy products if production gets too high and prices are low, rather than forcing the dairy processors to pay higher prices or endure what they would consider a shortage of milk. Both the National Milk Producers Federation, which represents the farmers, and the International Dairy Foods Association, which represents the processors, endorsed the bill.
The only major agriculture groups that ended up opposing the bill were the American Meat Institute, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, and the National Chicken Council. They were upset that the bill does not repeal or at least alter country-of-origin labeling for red meat or restrict the Agriculture Department's ability to tighten up the Packers and Stockyards Act. But on both those issues, there were farm and ranch groups lobbying on the other side.
The decision to leave out the amendment sponsored by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that was aimed at stopping California from banning eggs produced in Iowa unless the Iowa producers increase the size of the cages for their egg-laying chickens resulted in an endorsement from the Humane Society of the United States. The Humane Society also praised the bill for making it a federal crime to attend or bring a child under the age of 16 to an animal fighting event.
Even though he lost his amendment, King voted for the bill, along with most rural Republicans. But Reps. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., and Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., both said they could not vote for a farm bill that devotes so much of its spending to food stamps.
Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., also voted against the bill, even though he is trying to unseat Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mark Pryor, R-Ark. Cotton's vote seems surprising for someone in a state as agricultural as Arkansas, but maybe he has a sense of the state today. In 2010, Arkansas voters threw out Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat, even though she chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Lincoln's defeat paved the way for Stabenow to become chairwoman, and she appears likely to become the first woman leader of the committee to see a farm bill enacted. Stabenow has pushed hard to reduce spending and do more for the fruit and vegetable and organic sectors, and House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Sam Farr, D-Calif., called the legislation "the most progressive farm bill ever passed." Stabenow has done a remarkable job of forging consensus, but her decision to join her ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., in a commodity title that made concessions to the South has lost her the support of Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., her former ranking member, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who is upset that payment limits aren't stricter. Roberts and Grassley have announced they will vote against the bill on final passage on Tuesday. In the process, she gained the support of Southern senators who refused to support an earlier version.
For Stutzman, Huelskamp, Cotton, Roberts, and Grassley to oppose a farm bill conference report on final passage goes against the traditions of rural lawmakers. But they can vote no with the luxury of knowing the bill will pass. It would have been interesting to know how they would have voted if their votes determined whether farmers would get a new five-year safety net or not.
This article appears in the February 3, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.