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Johnson adds support to payment limit debate

DANIEL LOOKER 01/15/2014 @ 5:07pm Business Editor

Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) on Wednesday weighed in on the payment-limit issue that is among the sticking points holding up a final draft of a farm bill.

When asked his views on reports that farm bill negotiators may have agreed to cut food stamp spending with rules that would save between $8 billion and $10 billion over the next decade, Johnson said he could accept that, if the rest of the farm bill remained closer to the version passed by the Senate than the House. The Senate bill cut about $4 billion, vs. nearly $40 billion in the House of Representative cuts to food stamps, now known as the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP.

Among the programs Johnson feels most strongly about are spending on conservation programs, livestock disaster assistance, which he said is badly needed in his state, and "including reforms to farm programs."

Like Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Johnson has long sought to close the loopholes that allow wealthy nonfarmers to get USDA commodity program payments.

Johnson was asked about Grassley's assertion that Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) is the lone advocate of payment limits among the four ag committee leaders meeting behind closed doors and whether or not she could prevail in those negotiations.

"I'm not a member of the [farm bill] conference committee, but I hope she stands strong on this issue," Johnson told Agriculture.com.

"Both the House and the Senate bills contain nearly identical language, so it's frustrating that some members are trying to change the provisions," Johnson said.

When asked if a farm bill without payment limit reforms could pass after the conference committee submits their work to the House and Senate, Johnson said that "is sheer speculation." Grassley has suggested that the bill might have difficulty passing in the House without payment limit reforms.

Ferd Hoefner, who works for an agricultural group that supports strong payment limits, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, expressed confidence Wednesday that the reforms will stay in the farm bill.

"The Chairwoman has been vigorous in her support of reform and in upholding the will of the Senate and the House," Hoefner told Agriculture.com in an email message. "We hope the others within the big four will ultimately see the wisdom of not risking the entire new farm bill over this one issue. But if not, they can propose its deletion and it will become a matter for all the conferees to decide and at that point, we believe it can and will be kept out of the final bill."

Hoefner's group has posted a blog outlining its support for payment reforms.

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