Our Long, National Farm-Bill Nightmare Is Over

After three years of congressional wrangling, the Senate has passed the bill.

Shoulder-high stalks are seen in a corn field July 5, 2006 in Prairie View, Illinois. Despite above average precipitation this spring, a devasting drought last summer that dragged into early 2006 continues to pose a threat to crops. Last year's corn crop was able to weather the drought thanks to saved-up soil moisture, a factor experts say is missing this year. Despite the concerns, this year's crop is well ahead of last year, according to experts.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
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Elahe Izadi
Feb. 4, 2014, 10:01 a.m.

It took Con­gress three years to pass a bill that deals with the most fun­da­ment­ally uni­ver­sal as­pect of Amer­ic­an life: eat­ing.

The Sen­ate gave the fi­nal stamp of ap­prov­al on the five-year farm bill Tues­day, vot­ing 68-32. The 959-page, nearly $1 tril­lion bill is a massive over­haul of food policy, and cov­ers all sorts of food-re­lated items, such as elim­in­at­ing dir­ect pay­ments to farm­ers in lieu of crop in­sur­ance and cut­ting $8 bil­lion in food-stamp fund­ing.

The fi­nal bill is a product of on-again, off-again con­fer­ence-com­mit­tee ne­go­ti­ations. “It’s done!” Sen­ate Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Debbie Stabenow ex­claimed after its fi­nal pas­sage. Fel­low Demo­crat­ic Sen. Bar­bara Mikul­ski had giv­en her a high-five on the Sen­ate floor dur­ing the vote.

But not every­one was pleased with the fi­nal product.

Nine Sen­ate Demo­crats, in­clud­ing Kirsten Gil­librand and Eliza­beth War­ren, joined 23 Re­pub­lic­ans in op­pos­ing the bill.

Sen. Robert Ca­sey of Pennsylvania and oth­er Demo­crats cited cuts to the Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram, aka food stamps, in their de­cision to op­pose the bill.

“There’s a lot in the bill that I could cer­tainly sup­port…. Debbie Stabenow de­serves a lot of cred­it for drop­ping it down from where the House was,” Ca­sey said Tues­day. The House ver­sion of the bill called for $39 bil­lion in SNAP cuts. “But I just couldn’t at this time sup­port a cut of that di­men­sion.”

In­de­pend­ent Sen. Bernie Sanders also wor­ried about the food-stamp cuts but said he voted for the bill after re­ceiv­ing as­sur­ances from Ver­mont Gov. Peter Shum­lin that the state will be able “to pro­tect lower-in­come Ver­monters from these cuts” through state fund­ing. At the same time, Sanders said, he could not ig­nore the needs of Ver­mont’s well-known dairy in­dustry.

Passing farm bills has his­tor­ic­ally been an easy and bi­par­tis­an ef­fort, but pro­gress on push­ing this le­gis­la­tion through had been im­peded over dis­agree­ments on food-stamp, dairy, and sug­ar pro­grams, as well as crop in­sur­ance and oth­er as­pects of ag­ri­cul­tur­al policy. The pre­vi­ous farm bill had been tem­por­ar­ily ex­ten­ded dur­ing last year’s fisc­al-cliff deal, but ex­pired at the end of Septem­ber.

Such swift ap­prov­al in Con­gress this time around be­lies how tough of a go it’s been to reach pas­sage. The farm bill un­ex­pec­tedly failed in the House last sum­mer when con­ser­vat­ives voted against it be­cause cuts to the food-stamp pro­gram didn’t go deep enough, while a bloc of lib­er­als voted no be­cause the cuts went too far. This time around, the mo­mentum was there for pas­sage, bolstered by the pro­spect of an­oth­er “dairy cliff” and a spike in milk prices, as well as by the sup­port of a broad range of in­terest groups. 

As with so many as­pects of le­gis­lat­ing, it’s not pretty to watch how the saus­age is made (or in this case, how the corn is grown). Things were so rough that House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­man Frank Lu­cas had said that if he died dur­ing the fi­nal run-up to the bill, “I want a glass of milk carved on my tomb­stone — be­cause it’s what killed me.” 

Sarah Mimms contributed to this article.
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