In final floor action before the beginning of the House-Senate conference on the farm bill, the House Saturday voted down a resolution to make changes to the sugar program and a Democratic motion to instruct conferees.
Late Friday the House also passed by voice vote a resolution instructing House conferees to support a Senate farm bill provision that would reduce crop insurance premium subsidies for farmers who make more than $750,000.
The vote on the sugar resolution, which would have urged conferees to change the way that the Agriculture secretary administers tariff-rate quotas for raw and refined sugar, was a major victory for sugar growers. The vote was 192 to 212, one member voting present and 26 not voting.
The Senate and House farm bills contain the same reauthorizations of the sugar program. Theoretically farm bill provisions that are the same in the House and Senate bills are not supposed to be subject to change in the conference.
The American Sugar Alliance issued the following statement about the vote to reject the sugar program resolution sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa.
"It is hard to imagine any issue that has been voted on as many times as sugar policy since congressional action on this farm bill began," the ASA, which represents cane and beet growers, said in an email.
"The Senate has rejected three amendments designed to gut U.S. sugar policy, and now the House has voted down two anti-sugar proposals. It is obvious that the United States Congress has spoken and that lawmakers support current sugar policy and oppose attempts to undermine our nation's food security."
"A strong sugar policy is essential given the rapid expansion of foreign subsidies and the flood of Mexican imports, which have sent U.S. sugar prices spiraling back to the lows of the 1980s," ASA continued. "This resolution would have put U.S. jobs at risk, made it harder for the USDA to operate sugar policy in a way that limits taxpayer cost, and would have done nothing to promote a free market for sugar."
The Democratic motion to instruct, which was sponsored by House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., failed by a vote of 204 to 195, with two Republicans voting present and 30 members not voting.
Nine Republicans joined the Democrats in supporting Peterson, but the number of Republicans supporting Peterson was 12 at one point in the voting.
The motion to instruct would have told conferees to put the reauthorization of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP or food stamps, on the same schedule as the farm program and to continue the 1938 and 1949 laws as permanent farm legislation.
The House version of the farm bill authorizes nutrition programs for three years and the farm program for five years. If the conference report adopts that approach, the nutrition and farm programs would have to be considered separately in the future. Conservatives have urged this approach in order to break up the political alliance of farm and anti-hunger advocates.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was the sponsor of the crop insurance resolution. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., opposed the resolution, but did not ask for a roll call vote, presumably because a voice vote carries less weight with conferees than a roll call vote.
The Ryan resolution urges the House conferees to support a Senate farm bill amendment sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to reduce crop premium subsidies by 15 percent for farmers who make more than $750,000.
The Senate adopted the Durbin-Coburn amendment even though farm groups opposed it and supported instead a measure linking crop insurance to conservation compliance in hopes it would not be brought up or would fail.
The Environmental Working Group praised the House action today.
"We congratulate Rep. Paul Ryan on his leadership to bring a measure of fairness to crop insurance subsidies," EWG said in a statement. "It makes clear that the House expects the final farm bill to reduce crop insurance premium subsidies to the most successful farm operations by 15 percent."
"We are grateful to not only Rep. Ryan, but to many other House lawmakers, including Reps. Earl Blumenauer [D-Ore.], Chellie Pingree [D-Maine] and Richard Hanna [R-N.Y.], who worked with Rep. Ryan," EWG said.
"While other subsidy reforms, such as linking conservation compliance to crop insurance, are needed, means testing of crop insurance is long overdue. Though modest, the reform endorsed by the House lays the groundwork for a fairer, more fiscally defensible farm safety net."
The American Farm Bureau Federation last week dropped out of the coalition of farm and conservation groups that support conservation compliance but opposed means testing crop insurance premium subsidies.
The remaining members of that coalition released a statement late Friday that they continued their opposition to means testing.
"The undersigned organizations reaffirm the principles reflected in our 2013 historic agreement, which includes adding conservation compliance to the Federal crop insurance program and excludes establishment of means testing requirements for the Federal crop insurance program," the coalition said in letter sent to House members.
"In the spirit of compromise and in the interest of completing a 2013 farm bill this year, each of the groups has committed to not support amendments that might weaken the crop insurance program or conservation compliance. The undersigned organizations, therefore, urge you to reject the Ryan resolution on adjusted gross income tests for crop insurance. A meaningful farm and natural resource safety net as provided by crop insurance and conservation compliance must be available to all producers across the nation."