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Senate Ag Committee approves farm bill

DANIEL LOOKER Updated: 04/30/2012 @ 9:36am Business Editor

Over the objections of southern Senators and one from New York, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved a five-year farm bill Thursday that now heads for a vote on the Senate floor.

The bill, called the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, received strong bipartisan support in a 12-4 vote (or 16-5, including proxy votes). Three southern Republicans said they could not support it because they view its programs for rice, cotton and peanuts as unfair, and Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said she opposed cuts to food stamp programs that would affect hundreds of thousands of low income residents of her state.

“This Committee is unique. Our hearing room doesn’t have a raised dais; instead we sit together around a table, not unlike the tables that America’s farmers sit around after a long day’s work," said Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) at the start of the meeting to mark up a bill. "The work we do around this table is hard. Farm Bills are never easy. And a Farm Bill like this is especially hard when we’re making serious and needed reforms while also cutting the deficit by $23 billion."

“We examined every program in the Farm Bill, and we reformed, streamlined, and consolidated to get perhaps the most significant reforms in agricultural policy of any Farm Bill in recent memory," she said. “We’ve listened to farmers, strengthened crop insurance, and made that the centerpiece of risk management."

Stabenow said called the bill bipartisan. And the first senator she mentioned was Chuck Grassley, and Iowa Republican.

“We have the tightest payment limits ever, and I want to thank Senator Grassley for his tireless work on this issue," she said. The bill would cap payments at $50,000 per person and it tightens up rules on who is eligible to receive them. It also has "one, simplified limit on income: $750,000. Stabenow said.

Stabenow also described the ranking Republican on the committee, Senator Pat Roberts, as a "great partner" in drafting the bill. "This has been a long and winding road, and I appreciate our partnership," she said.

Roberts praised the committees work in cutting federal spending, pointing out that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) counts a savings of almost $25 billion over 10 years from the final draft that was finished Wednesday night. Most of the savings come from reducing spending on commodity and conservation programs, including the repeal of direct payments. And the CBO score of deficit reduction was bigger than the committee's target of $23 billion.

Roberts acknowledged disagreements among commodity groups about the best way to reform commodity programs.

“If all you did was listen to these groups, you’d think we’re robbing to Peter to pay Paul,” he said.

 And he reminded the committee that he was the author of the original direct payment program, which has had stronger support among wheat farmers.

Yet, even in Kansas, farmers now grow slightly more acres of corn and soybeans than wheat, according to statistics Roberts cited. “These acreage shifts have occurred because farmers made those decisions.”

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