With a vote on the Senate farm bill expected sometime this week, lawmakers will continue with votes on a series of wide-ranging amendments on Wednesday.
Earlier this week, in a deal between parties to move the legislation, the list of amendments to receive votes was trimmed from some 300 to 73.
Among amendments already voted on:
• An amendment passed that would repeal the USDA catfish inspection program. Mandated in the 2008 farm bill, the inspection program was yet to be implemented. An amendment to reduce crop insurance sales costs to restore some $4.5 billion in cuts to nutrition program spending was defeated.
• An amendment that would have placed more strict eligibility standards for nutrition program recipients was defeated.
• An amendment that would prevent states from increasing nutrition program roles/benefits via a federal home heating assistance program was defeated.
• An amendment to place a $250,000 adjusted gross income eligibility marker for farmers was defeated.
• An amendment that places a $75,000 cap on marketing loan pay limits passed the Senate.
• An amendment to end mandatory crop checkoff funds was defeated. This amendment was offered by South Carolina Sen. Jim Demint, who courted controversy last fall with his views on a checkoff favored by Christmas tree farmers.
• An amendment to support rural development passed the Senate. The amendment would ensure funding of USDA Rural Development programs such as updating wastewater and sewer infrastructure systems, provide farmers with access to capital, and provide technical assistance to beginning farmers and ranchers.
Among amendments yet to be voted on:
• A ban on EPA flyovers/aerial surveillance of farmland under the Clean Water Act.
• An amendment to eliminate the Conservation Reserve Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program.
With such a draft farm bill and amendment votes what message is being sent from the Senate to the House prior to a farm bill conference?
During a Wednesday morning press conference, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said one of the “great things” about deficit reduction efforts and the “super committee” process last fall, was a coming together of Senate and House agriculture leadership. “We agreed to come up with $23 billion in deficit reduction under our jurisdiction. Unfortunately, we were the only (ones) who did that. If everyone had done that within their areas of jurisdiction, we’d have had a big deficit reduction proposal. That didn’t happen.
“But one of the positives out of that is (the House and Senate agriculture leaders) really developed a great working relationship. I’ve been keeping (House leaders) apprised of what we’re doing. I have great confidence in them and, once we move this out of the Senate, I believe they’ll be successful in reporting a bill out of (the House Agriculture Committee).
Broad parameters maintained
The broad parameters agreed to last fall “are maintained” in the Senate farm bill, said Stabenow. While not enamored with the Senate bill, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, House Agriculture Committee ranking member, has said any problems – presumably including those that still remain for rice and peanuts -- can be fixed during conference.
An amendment being prepped last week from Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss and South Dakota Sen. John Thune would have allowed rice and peanut producers target price supports. After speaking with Stabenow, the senators withdrew the amendment believing that the issues for the crops will be best addressed in conference.
Back to the Senate amendments, Chambliss has also proposed attaching conservation compliance to crop insurance. There has been opposition to that idea from farm groups and the crop insurance industry. Stabenow’s reaction?
“First of all, we’ve fought very hard in the farm bill to strengthen … conservation. We have more of a focus on conservation than any farm bill in the past.”
Further, “the new risk management programs are all tied to conservation compliance. Anything in the Commodity Title – to get a marketing loan, if you’re under the new ARC program -- … is tied to conservation compliance.
“Then, we made a major step forward with the Sod Saver Program to protect native grasslands. … If you’re going into native grasslands, prairielands, breaking them up, there’s a penalty against your crop insurance.”
However, “we did not take the step totally on crop insurance. Primarily, that’s because crop insurance is different kind of entity. It is a private insurance program that people purchase into. It’s different than when folks are receiving dollars under the Commodity Title. At this point, crop insurance is fundamentally different and we didn’t make that total link.”
The “process of change” would mean a deficit reduction “net over $15 billion in the Commodity Title.”
Stabenow does not “anticipate” the Chambliss amendment will pass.
The chairwoman was also queried on two other premium support/crop insurance-related amendments up for votes – one from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (which would reduce federal premium support by 15 percent), another from Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin/Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn (which would limit the crop insurance premium subsidy provided to farmers with an adjusted gross income greater than $750,000).
“On the overall question around crop insurance limits, (South Dakota) Sen. John Thune has a side-by-side amendment with Durbin/Coburn,” said Stabenow. “They’re trying to work out common language, to come together where we might accept the amendment…
“My concern, as we move to a risk-based system and look at any of the amendments that deal with crop insurance, is that we don’t undermine the reforms we’ve made. We’re eliminating four direct subsidies … that aren’t tied to risk management. We’re moving to crop insurance and we want to support and incentivize farmers to purchase crop insurance.
“The reason it’s a partnership, where the federal government provides a discount, is to be able to support (farmers) so they’ll have skin in the game, to put their own money up. Whenever we look at … limits on that, my worry is we’ll shift the cost to smaller farms.”
Perhaps, Stabenow suggested, it would be best to deal with such limits in the next farm bill. “We don’t have enough information yet. … I am concerned about looking at these limits and what it does to small and medium-sized farms.”