Farm bill support not universal as it heads to Senate floor

Published online: May 16, 2013
Viewed 870 time(s)

Although support for the Senate farm bill has carried the measure on to floor consideration, it's not unanimous.

There were five committee votes against the bill. The only Democrat to vote no was Kristin Gillibrand of New York. Following the committee's markup of the bill, Sen. Gillibrand said that she has problems with the $4 billion cut in nutrition programs.

"What we're talking about is about $90 less a month in food assistance," she said, "and for a family that could mean the whole last week of their groceries."

Republican John Thune of South Dakota dissented because he thinks the bill has more than it should have.

"What famers in South Dakota tell me is, `we want a good strong crop insurance program,' and I think that this bill has that," Thune said, but he added, "a lot of these other bells and whistles being added are very costly."

Specifically, Thune thinks that target prices, and especially the fixed target prices for rice and peanuts should not be in the bill.
Likewise, Nebraska Republican Mike Johanns thinks the day has come and gone for taxpayers to be guaranteeing a price for peanut and rice growers.

"They don't respond to market signals because they don't have to; we've covered their cost of production if not more," said Johanns, "and so at the end of the day, I just think target prices; that's kind of 1980s agriculture."

Meanwhile, for every no vote, there were three votes in support of the ill.

What seems to result in broad committee support is that the measure ends direct payments in favor of risk management tools such as crop insurance.

In comments during committee discussion, Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) spotlighted what she says are very significant reforms, including conservation compliance linked to crop insurance subsidies.

"The point isn't to penalize farmers," said Stabenow, addressing the committee she chairs, "but to conserve our resources and allow farmers to be the best stewards of our land."

Similar support is expressed by the Obama administration. While the markup was happening Tuesday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was telling farm broadcasters that he feels it's not unreasonable to ask farmers for something in return for crop insurance subsidies.

"We want to work with you to make sure that conservation is part of your thought process," said Vilsack, explaining that he doesn't think it's unreasonable to expect something in return for taxpayer subsidized crop insurance premiums. "I think that's a pretty good deal; I think that's a fair deal."

Also in Washington Tuesday to address farm broadcasters, Dr. Carl Zulauf, agriculture economist at Ohio State University, said that, although not unanimous among committee members, the quick markup "suggests that the bill will have an easier time than otherwise it might have on the floor.

"There are provisions in this bill that moves it closer to the House bill," Zulauf added, "so it suggests that we're beginning the process of trying to reconcile and finding appropriate compromise for these farm bills."

Farm organizations seem to have long ago conceded that cuts in the funding for such legislation are unavoidable. Their primary concern is to get a five-year farm bill passed, for which there's higher confidence than last year.

"I think we're going to get a farm bill done this year," said Bob Young, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation. Young also cited "right noises out of the House leadership as well about moving legislation."

Getting ultimate passage and a signed bill in place is also a priority for members of the National Farmers Union. Their president, Roger Johnson, says the most important part of that is a farm safety net.

"We've long felt that a safety net should be really about two things," Johnson said. "It should help in times of disaster, and the other thing is it should help when the market has a long-term price collapse."

As for the Senate Ag Committee's performance, "they've done what they can with the money that was provided to them," said Young. "They've been handed a very tough task with the cuts that they've had to come up with."