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Senate Stands as Last Chance for Farm Bill Reformers

Although Congress is weeks or even months away from sending the 2018 farm bill to President Trump for enactment, the end of the road is near for reformers, whose last opportunity lies in the Senate for altering government payments to farmers. The crop insurance industry, a popular target for fiscal hawks and other critics, is asking senators to vote against “amendments that would do significant harm” to the federally subsidized program during debate that could end with Senate passage of the bill this week.

Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, a dogged advocate of stricter farm subsidy limits, is the headline reformer so far. By some accounts, his payment-limit plan is the biggest challenge to the status-quo farm bill coauthored by Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, the tireless defender of crop insurance, and Senator Debbie Stabenow, the senior Democrat on the committee. Grassley would set a “hard” cap of $125,000 a year in farm subsidies and limit them to farmers, their spouses, and one manager per farm.

Crop insurers and farm groups fear the return of the “Durbin amendment” to make the largest and wealthiest 1% of growers pay more for coverage. Adopted on a 59-33 vote in 2013, the language sponsored by Illinois Senator Richard Durbin reduced the premium subsidy by 15 percentage points for farmers with more than $750,000 adjusted gross income annually. At present, the government pays 62% of farmers’ crop insurance premiums. The provision was deleted from the final version of the bill.

“I look forward to a swift and bipartisan process here in the Senate so we can move quickly to conference with the House,” said Roberts ahead of the vote. “Our farmers and ranchers are counting on us to deliver a farm bill on time.”

Once the House and Senate pass their version of the farm bill, the final version will be written by a small group of negotiators from each chamber, with the leaders of the Agriculture committees occupying the seats of power. Outsiders have little influence on so-called conference committees, which listen closest to their friends in industry. In 2014, farm bill negotiators deleted Grassley’s payment-limit package although it was adopted by the House and Senate.

Before debate can begin, the Senate has to remove procedural barriers. Senators are scheduled to vote this evening on whether to prevent a filibuster on the motion to proceed to the farm bill, an arcane but important step. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could file a similar motion on the bill itself. Even when successful, the so-called cloture motions allow hours of debate but they can be ceded in some circumstances. One Senate staffer said Roberts, Stabenow, and Senate leaders would try to resolve objections to the bill behind the scenes so they can proceed without objection to floor debate. The staffer gave an 80% chance the Senate will pass the farm bill this week. Other staffers did not rule it out.

Durbin was expected to propose a 25-point cut in premium subsidies for crop insurance for people with more than $700,000 annual AGI, doubled for a married couple, said a farm lobbyist. Two other senators were working on an amendment to cap premium subsidies at $140,000 a year per farm.

More than a year ago, farm lobbyists said proposals such as Durbin’s may be hard to defeat. Farm groups give top priority to preservation of a strong crop insurance program. “AGI means tests are a concoction of interest groups that oppose farm programs, in general,” said the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. farm group, in a position paper written in April 2017. “Crop insurance opponents would have you believe that this is about cutting subsidies for wealthy farmers while helping small family farmers. In reality, it’s about undermining crop insurance for everyone.”

Reformers say there are many ways to revise crop insurance, ranging from denying premium subsidies to wealthy growers to setting a dollar limit on premium subsidies per farmer. Trump proposed in February to reduce the premium subsidy on the so-called Harvest Price Option by 15 percentage points and the premium subsidy for other policies, except for catastrophic coverage, by 10 points.

In recent decades, Congress usually has completed work on the farm bill months or even a year later than planned. The 2014 farm law, which expires on September 30, began as the 2012 farm bill. The House passed its farm bill, 213-211, last week on its second try. The House bill and the Roberts-Stabenow bill make minor revisions rather than overhaul farm support programs. Roberts and Stabenow, in seeking a bill that would be broadly supported in the Senate, rejected the House Republican plan for broader and stricter work requirements affecting 7 million or more “work capable” adults to qualify for food stamps while relaxing the standards for collecting farm subsidies.

The conservative Heritage Action urged senators to vote against the Senate farm bill. Heritage advocated work requirements that mirror the House bill and said the Senate bill directs farm subsidies to the largest and most successful farmers. “Congress should not waste this opportunity to reform welfare and rein in out-of-control farm subsidies while giving farmers the regualtory relief they need,” said the group.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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