Why Is the Farm Bill Finally Ripe for Passage?

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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09: U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) speaks during a press conference calling for passage of mental health legislation as part of a gun safety package with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) at the U.S. Capitol April 9, 2013 in Washington, DC. The legislation would expand access to treatment and improve the quality of care at community mental health centers. 
National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
Feb. 2, 2014, 8:14 a.m.

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.

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