The Senate Agriculture Committee Tuesday approved a 2013 Farm Bill with relatively few changes from the chairwoman's mark, first released last week. It is expected to offer $23 billion in deficit reduction.
The bill ends direct payments and offers disaster assistance measures while cutting $4 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program through waste-control measures. The bill also consolidates conservation programs and duplicative programs.
"We saw last year undeniable proof that farming is the riskiest business in the country," Stabenow said, "this is why the Farm Bill is so important."
Senators sparred over the commodity title, which raises target prices for various commodities. Sen. Thune proposed an amendment to remove all crops but rice and peanuts from the new Adverse Market Payment program.
The program, which retains 2008 target prices for all commodity crops but rice and peanuts, Thune said, is a "step backwards to an old, outdated policy." The amendment amounts to about $1 billion in savings over ten years, Thune noted.
Sen. Pat Roberts similarly noted concerns about the World Trade Organization considering the high target prices of rice and peanuts to be trade distorting.
"That's a big red flag for me," Roberts said. "Why should the two commodities dictate that all others have to have target prices when we don't want them?"
Roberts went on to note that the target prices, also known as counter-cyclical payments – which did not appear in last year's Senate bill – will create a situation where "farmers farm for the government."
Southern senator and new Committee Ranking Member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who worked to prepare the program, opposed the amendment, which ultimately failed by voice vote.
Somewhat contentious debate also surfaced over SNAP cuts, as expected. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., voiced concern regarding the $4 billion in SNAP savings, noting that many veterans and seniors rely on the program for nutritional assistance.
"The real need in our communities is very high for basic food and nutrition," Gillibrand said. "When we make our judgments about how to cut spending, tightening our belts around the waists of our children is not a shared American value."
The amendment from Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, to restore the SNAP cuts, was withdrawn and will likely be revisited on the floor.
North Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune's amendment to reorganize SNAP education funds with a savings of $2 billion was voted down, as was an amendment from Sen. Johanns, R-Neb., to restrict categorical eligibility in the SNAP program.
Thune offered an additional amendment to shutter SNAP benefits for what he called "ABAWDs" – able- bodied adults without dependents – unless they are living in areas with insufficient jobs or high unemployment rates. His amendment was voted down.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., withdrew an amendment for "comprehensive food stamp reform" that would save $31 billion by eliminating the LIHEAP loophole and the SNAP employment & training and education programs. Aspects of the plan are similar to "clean-up" legislation Roberts introduced earlier this year.
Conservation amendments were also on the table Tuesday, as Senators discussed connecting crop insurance to conservation compliance. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., opposed the connection, noting it adds "regulatory burden and cost."
Though he agreed that the provision may have benefits, Hoeven offered an amendment to eliminate the connection due to regulatory burden.
However, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said farmers should comply with conservation requirements to get government assistance, and pointed out the wide support of the bill among industry groups.
"I understand what my friend is saying," Chambliss said after Hoeven's comments. "But I simply haven't had the issue raised by my farmers as to how much more [difficulty] this provision is going to add to their operation."
Roberts argued that conservation compliance is already attached to the Agriculture Risk Coverage program and the Marketing Loan Program, therefore a crop insurance duplication, he argued, is wasteful. The amendment, however, failed by voice vote.
Farm Groups Weigh In
Farm, livestock and conservation groups were generally pleased with the Senate committee's bill, praising quick action and overall bipartisan agreement.
National Corn Growers Association President Pam Johnson said in a statement Tuesday that the Committee "listened to the concerns of our nation's corn farmers and have done a great job keeping our priorities, especially the importance of crop insurance and risk management, under consideration."
American Soybean Association President Danny Murphy praised the Adverse Market Program, which he said "resolved a philosophical difference between farm groups on how to keep government farm programs from distorting planting decisions, and has united all major production regions behind one approach."
Bob Stallman, American Farm Bureau President, supported the flexibility the bill offered through options beyond crop insurance, and was pleased with a formal tie between crop insurance and conservation compliance.
Conservation group the National Wildlife Federation also joined the chorus of support, highlighting several amendments that support soil, water and wildlife conservation.
"The Senate farm bill includes an historic agreement between agriculture and conservation organizations to ensure that basic soil and wetland protection requirements were extended to apply to crop insurance premium subsidies," explained Julie Sibbing, NWF director of Agriculture and Forestry Programs. "We look forward to working with [the Committee] to pass a final farm bill this year that includes these important protections."
Energy group Growth Energy highlighted the inclusion of Rural Energy programs and Biomass Crop programs as a signal of support for renewable fuels development.
On the livestock front, the National Milk Producers Federation again reiterated support of the Dairy Security Act, which includes a market stabilization component that is opposed by dairy processors.
"We commend the members of the Senate Agriculture Committee for approving a farm bill today to transform dairy policy, while making necessary improvements in other farm and nutrition programs," noted Jerry Kozak, NMPF president.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association thanked the Committee for removing language that would have solidified an agreement between the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States regarding egg-laying hen housing. NCBA has argued that had the agreement been included, livestock producers would soon be subject to HSUS pressure via more housing legislation.
NCBA President Scott George also noted that the bill included other top priorities for the organization, such as maintaining conservation and research funding.
To view all amendments to the bill, visit the Senate Ag Committee webpage.