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Senate Ag Committee approves farm bill

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.”

Roberts called the committee's work "the best bill possible under difficult circumstances."

The committee voted to make several changes to the bill Thursday, with the biggest being the addition of $800 million in mandatory spending for the energy title, which promotes the development of new crops for biofuels and has an energy efficiency assistance program that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has also used to support installation of blender pumps that dispense different mixes of ethanol and gasoline.

The amendment, offered by Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) would have taken about half of the funds for the energy title from a program for cotton gins, but Conrad agreed to an amendment from Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) take all of the $800 million from the extra savings in the farm bill in the CBO score.

Senator John Boozman of Arkansas was one of the committee members who voted against the bill, because he said that rice farmers are taking a disproportionate share of cuts to commodity programs, 70% of what would have been spent without changes in the law.

“I have serious concerns about the commodity title and the impact it will have on southern producers and the planting decisions they will have to make,” he said. "This new program leaves gaping holes in the southern safety net.”

The new farm bill offers all farmers a shallow loss revenue protection program called Agriculture Risk Coverage, but Boozman said that because the program pays no more than 10% of revenue losses below a farm's five-year benchmark, it wouldn't adequately support southern producers. "“A revenue program is attractive when prices are high,” he said, but doesn't protect against rapid declines.

Stabenow pointed out that she and Roberts added a special rule for rice and peanuts when calculating a farm's benchmark and said that she's willing to continue working with southern members of the committee before a final Senate vote on the bill.

Here's a short summary of reforms in the bill the committee approved Thursday:

Eliminates Direct Payments while Strengthening Risk Management

Farmers face unique risks unlike other businesses. Weather and market conditions outside a producer’s control can have devastating effects. A risk management system that helps producers stay in business through a few bad seasons ensures that Americans always have access to a safe and plentiful food supply. The proposal:

  • Eliminates direct payments. Farmers will no longer be paid for crops they are not growing, will not be paid for acres that are not actually planted, and will not receive support absent a drop in price or yields.
  • Consolidates two remaining farm programs into one, and will give farmers the ability to tailor risk management coverage—meaning better protection against real risks beyond a farmer’s control.
  • Strengthens crop insurance and expands access so farmers are not wiped out by a few days of bad weather.

Consolidates and Streamlines Programs

By eliminating duplicative programs, funds are concentrated in the areas in which they will have the greatest impact, making them work better for producers.

  • By ending duplication and consolidating programs, the bill eliminates dozens of programs under the Agriculture Committee’s jurisdiction.
  • For example, the bill consolidates 23 existing conservation programs into 13 programs, while maintaining the existing tools farmers and landowners need to protect and conserve land, water and wildlife.

Improves Program Integrity and Accountability

At a time when many out-of-work Americans are in need for the first time in their lives, it is critical that every taxpayer dollar be spent responsibly and serves those truly struggling. By closing loopholes, tightening standards, and requiring greater transparency, the proposal increases efficiency and improves effectiveness.

Increases accountability in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by:

  • Stopping lottery winners from continuing to receive assistance.
  • Ending misuse by college students.
  • Cracking down on retailers and recipients engaged in benefit trafficking.
  • Increasing requirements to prevent liquor and tobacco stores from becoming retailers.
  • Eliminating gaps in standards that result in overpayment of benefits.
  • The proposal maintains benefits for families in need.

Grows America’s Agricultural Economy

  • The proposal increases efficiency and accountability, saving tens of billions of dollars overall, while strengthening agricultural jobs initiatives by:
  • Expanding export opportunities and helping farmers develop new markets for their goods.
  • Investing in research to help commercialize new agricultural innovations.
  • Growing bio-based manufacturing (businesses producing goods in America from raw agricultural products grown in America) by allowing bio-manufacturers to participate in existing U.S. Department of Agriculture loan programs, expanding the BioPreferred labeling initiative, and strengthening a procurement preference so the U.S. government will select bio-based products when purchasing needed goods.
  • Spurring advancements in bio-energy production, supporting advanced biomass energy production such as cellulosic ethanol and pellets from woody biomass for power.
  • Helping family farmers sell locally by increasing support for farmers’ markets and spurring the creation of food hubs to connect farmers to schools and other community-based consumers.
  • Extending rural development initiatives to help rural communities upgrade infrastructure and create an environment for small businesses to grow.

The entire bill is on the committee website. (Look for the redline summary for the most recent version considered by the committee Thursday. Amendments to the bill are also listed).

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