Senate sends farm bill to Obama

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Senate passed the farm bill yesterday in a 68-32 vote, sending the massive five-year reauthorization of farm and nutrition programs to the president’s desk.

Forty-six Democrats, 20 Republicans and two independents voted for the final bill, a conference report negotiated by agriculture leaders in the House and Senate. President Obama is expected to sign the legislation into law.

Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee leaders cheered the vote, which caps three years of work.

“This bill is taking a critical step toward changing the paradigm of agriculture,” Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said.

The long-delayed legislation would reauthorize and reform programs contained in the 2008 farm bill. It would spend $956 billion over the next decade and cut about 100 programs. About 80 percent of the bill’s funding would go toward the national food stamps program; the remainder will be spent on agriculture subsidies, conservation and renewable energy programs, rural development, and forestry programs.

H.R. 2642 represents some of the biggest reforms to federal farm subsidies in two decades. It would eliminate the direct payments that farmers receive regardless of what they plant in a given year, giving farmers instead a choice between greater insurance and protection against low market prices.

Under the bill, farmers would also be required to abide by basic conservation requirements to receive federal crop insurance subsidies on highly erodible land and wetlands. The bill also would limit insurance subsidies for the first few years on newly tilled land.

The bill would consolidate 23 conservation programs into 13 and cut $6 billion in conservation spending, the Congressional Budget Office said

The measure would also provide $881 million in mandatory funding over the next decade for renewable energy and biofuel initiatives, as well as allow renewable chemicals to qualify for assistance in federal biorefinery programs for the first time. The bill, however, would strip funding for the Agriculture Department to install special ethanol pumps at gas stations (E&E Daily, Jan. 28).

The legislation would also extend and expand key Forest Service authorities designed to expedite treatment of fire-prone and diseased forests, in addition to affirming that logging roads are not subject to litigation over Clean Water Act water discharge permitting (E&ENews PM, Jan. 28).

It would cut about $8 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — more commonly known as food stamps — over a decade.

The House approved the bill last week in a bipartisan vote of 251-166, despite vocal opposition by some Democrats incensed at its cuts to food stamps and by conservatives who opposed its nearly $1 trillion price tag (Greenwire, Jan. 29).

On the Senate side, 23 Republicans and nine Democrats today opposed the bill.

A handful of Midwestern Republican senators from farm states voted against the final bill, arguing that the reforms to the agriculture subsidy program structure do not go far enough. While the bill would eliminate direct payments, it panned other proposed reforms that would have capped subsidy payments and closed a loophole that allows more than one individual to receive subsidies for a single farm.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a former ranking member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee and the only Senate member of the farm bill conference committee to oppose the final report, has led much of the opposition to the bill.

“It all comes down to this simple question: Does the new farm bill improve agriculture and America? I believe the answer is unfortunately no,” Roberts said. “While we all want to provide long-overdue certainty to producers, something lacking for over 400 days, the conference missed an opportunity for greater and necessary reforms to our nation’s farm programs, federal nutrition programs and burdensome regulations.”

According to the White House, Obama is planning to sign the farm bill into law Friday at Michigan State University after giving remarks on the “importance of the farm bill to America’s economy.”

In a statement, Obama praised the legislation for including reforms to farm programs, reducing the deficit and providing certainty to rural America.

“As with any compromise, the farm bill isn’t perfect,” Obama said, “but on the whole, it will make a positive difference not only for the rural economies that grow America’s food, but for our nation.”