HAGSTROM For the Capital Press 4/27/12
WASHINGTON -- The Senate Agriculture
Committee passed a farm bill on April 26 that cuts more than
$23 billion in spending, ends the direct payments and
countercyclical programs and establishes a new commodity
The vote was 16-5 of all committee members,
including those voting by proxy.
The bill still has to be passed by the Senate
and reconciled with the House version before going to
President Obama for his signature.
"This is just the first inning of a long and
difficult farm bill process," Robert Guenther, senior vice
president for policy at for the United Fresh Fruit and
Vegetable Association, said.
Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., John Boozman,
R-Ark., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., criticized the commodity
title of the bill during the markup session and voted
against it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.,
also voted against it by proxy.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., also voted
against it because she objected to cuts to the food stamp
program and to the new dairy program in the bill.
But three-quarters of the members were in
favor, and committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.,
and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who were partners in writing
the bill, said they believe the vote was a strong one that
should lead Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to
bring it to the floor.
Stabenow said at a news conference after the
vote that Reid was "very interested in sitting down and
going through the bill," and that she believes it will be a
"few weeks" before Reid brings it up.
McConnell joined his fellow southerners in
opposing the bill, but Roberts told reporters he did not
believe that McConnell opposed it from the position of
Republican leader. Roberts also emphasized that Thursday's
vote showed Republicans and Democrats can still work
At the news conference, Stabenow and Roberts
seemed to be keeping the criticism of farm programs in mind
and had their eyes on the big picture.
The bill is called "The Agriculture Reform,
Food and Jobs Act of 2012" and at the news conference they
emphasized that it is a reform bill and that farmers need a
bill this year to provide them certainty.
Stabenow said they were committed to sending
it to Obama before the current law expires on Sept. 30.
One advantage Stabenow and Roberts may have
in pushing the bill forward is the extraordinary bipartisan
outpouring of affection, even by Senate standards, for
Stabenow, the first woman to chair the agriculture committee
when a farm bill is being written.
"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," Stabenow said.
Stabenow also said at several points that the
revised bill, which contained some changes from the original
to make it more acceptable to the southerners, was only
"step one" in the process.
Even Boozman, who said the commodity title
"would have a devastating impact on southern agriculture"
and voted against the bill, praised Stabenow "for taking our
calls," for "putting up with us."
The real challenge in bringing the bill to
the floor will be changing the commodity title in order to
get the support of southern senators, who have traditionally
been strong supporters of farm bills.
Chambliss, who was ranking member during the
2008 farm bill debate, told Capital Press after the vote
that he and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D.,
had managed to overcome regional differences in writing the
commodity title then, but that "this time around it didn't
One of the problems is that rice and peanuts
are not grown and marketed the same way as other commodities
so crop insurance and the new "shallow loss" program that
corn, soybean and other growers will use cannot be so easily
adapted to rice and peanuts.
Chambliss said the Congressional Budget
Office had found rice growers would give up 70 percent of
their subsidy money under the bill, while corn growers would
lose 22 percent.
At the news conference, Stabenow and Roberts
signaled that they want to find a way to appease the
southerners, but only within the budget.
"We are committed to maintaining the savings
in the bill," Stabenow said, adding that it was well known
that moving away from the direct payments program would
disproportionately affect the South.
Stabenow said that crop insurance is "not
fully developed" for a number of crops, including the
specialty crops grown in Michigan as well as for rice and
Roberts added that "within the budget we will
address every concern we have," but he also noted that
Kansas farmers who used to grow wheat now grow cotton, and
hinted that southerners would have to get used to shifting
The southern senators also objected to much
stronger payment limitations that were inserted into the
bill by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. Under this new
limitation, individuals with an income of more than $750,000
or married couples with an income of more than $1.5 million
will not be eligible for subsidies. Commodity subsidies will
be limited to $50,000 per person, and there will be stricter
rules about who will be considered actively engaged in
The bill did not, however, place restrictions
on crop insurance premium subsidies.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., was expected to
offer a bill to strip the dairy stabilization program from
the dairy title, but he did not offer it. A dairy lobbyist
said he is expected to offer it on the Senate floor.
Conrad and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., praised
Stabenow and Roberts for including a provision allowing
farmers to choose between a county trigger and individual
farm revenue trigger for commodity subsidies. Stabenow noted
that Baucus had made sure the bill includes a livestock
disaster aid title with a 10-year baseline.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank
Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn.,
issued statements after the votes that they were encouraged
by the Senate committee's action.
Lucas commended Stabenow and Roberts for
advancing the bill, and said he would work with Peterson "to
write the House bill in the coming weeks." But Lucas added,
"I am disappointed by the Senate bill's commodity title
because it does not work for all of agriculture.
"It fails to provide producers a viable
safety net and instead locks in profit for a couple of
commodities," Lucas said. "I have made it clear that my
chief priority is making certain that the commodity title is
equitable and provides a safety net for all covered
commodities and all regions of the country."
A shallow loss program "is not a safety net,"
he said. "It does not provide protection against price
declines over multiple years and it does not work for all
Peterson said that the House Agriculture
Committee should move quickly to mark up the bill.
Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, took a
different tone that reflected the obstacles a farm bill may
face in the House.
Conaway said the Senate committee "broke
faith with tradition by passing a farm bill that is so
lopsided and discriminatory against certain producers,
regions, and crops that it will take extraordinary effort to
restore the kind of balance necessary to pass a farm bill."