Farm Bill Floor Action Begins
May 31st, 2013
Note to Readers: With Congress on recess for the week, we are playing catch-up on our farm bill reporting. This post covers a range of topics, including Senate floor action on the farm bill. A second post takes a closer look at farm bill funding issues. Earlier, we posted a review of Senate and House Agriculture Committee markups on the farm bill.
Farm Bill Timing
The Senate has been on recess this week after having spent last week voting on Farm Bill amendments. They will return on Monday, June 3 and pick up where they left off, with reasonable expectations of finishing the bill by the end of the week.
To date they have proceeded on the basis of unanimous consent agreements to take up particular amendments. Expectations are that there will be a move to reach agreement on a limited number of additional amendments to vote on out of the hundreds filed to date. Should that agreement be difficult to reach, a motion might still be offered to file for cloture as an alternative path to truncate the process and finish the bill. With immigration reform on tap for Senate floor action in June, leadership will likely make every effort to be finished with the farm bill by the end of next week.
Waiting in the wings will be House floor action on the version of the Farm Bill reported out by the House Agriculture Committee. That debate is tentatively expected to begin the week of June 17 and finish by the July 4 recess, though nothing official has been announced.
Assuming both bodies succeed in approving a new farm bill, the next step after that will be the House-Senate conference where the final bill will be stitched together and then reported back to each body for a final vote. Many are hoping that process will be finished by the time Congress leaves for its August recess, though more likely scenarios would place final action much later in the year. The current short-term farm bill extension runs out on September 30, so if final action does not occur before then, additional short-term extensions may be required.
Statement of Administration Policy
The Obama Administration weighed in last week on the Senate measure, issuing its Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on May 20. While endorsing passage of the bill (S. 954) and highlighting a variety of farm, conservation, and energy program provisions to its liking, the SAP urges Congress to go further than it has to date in reducing crop insurance and commodity subsidies. The SAP also notes the Administration’s strong support for the SNAP program, though it stops short of criticizing the Senate for cutting the program modestly.
The pending House bill cuts commodity and crop insurance subsidies even less, and SNAP considerably more, relative to the Senate bill. Hence, one might expect stronger language when the White House releases its SAP in advance of House Farm Bill consideration.
Some Reform versus No Reform
To date, the Senate bill retains the commodity program payment limit reform provision from the Farm Program Integrity Act marker bill (S.281) introduced by Senators Grassley, Johnson, Enzi, and Brown. The provision limits commodity payments to $100,000 per farm, down from $210,000 under current law, and limits marketing loan benefits to $150,000 (currently unlimited). It would target payments to working farmers and close existing loopholes that make it easy for mega farms to collect multiple payments, creating what under current law is effectively no limit at all. The House bill reported out of Committee, by contrast, actually increases the current nominal limit to $250,000 per farm, retains unlimited marketing loan benefits, and leaves all current loopholes in place.
The Senate bill also renews a link between crop insurance premium subsidies and basic soil and wetland protection requirements. It also includes a nationwide sodsaver provision, reducing crop insurance benefits if grasslands are plowed up and converted to cropping. The bill reported by the House Agriculture Committee requires no conservation of natural resources in return for taxpayer-funded crop insurance and includes an unfair and unworkable sodsaver provision that is limited to just one small area of the country.
By way of a Senate floor amendment last week, the Senate bill now includes, as did the bill that passed the Senate last year, a modest reduction in insurance premium subsidies for millionaires. The Senate passed the amendment proposed by Senators Durbin (D-IL) and Coburn (R-OK) by a comfortable 59-33 margin. The same measure was removed from the bill during Committee markup earlier in May, but handily restored by the full Senate. By asking wealthy landowners and investors to pay a bit more of their own insurance costs, yet still maintaining a substantial taxpayer contribution, the amendment would save taxpayers $1.3 billion over the next ten years. To date, no similar provision is included in the House bill.
Pending in the Senate for floor consideration is an amendment by Senators Shaheen (D-NH) and Toomey (R-PA) to have the same payment limitation rules that apply to crop subsidies also apply to crop insurance subsidies. The amendment exactly mirrors the Senate bill’s provision limiting commodity payments to $100,000 per farm per year and requiring recipients to be actively engaged in farming. Failure of the Senate to adopt this amendment would severely weaken the historic reform included in the bill’s commodity title, in essence adopting real reform for one-third of farm safety net subsidy spending and no reform for the other two-thirds.
Each of these topics, while not currently part of the bill reported by the House Agriculture Committee, are likely to be part of the debate once the farm bill gets to the House floor later in June.
Amendments to Date in Senate
In addition to the Durbin-Coburn amendment (see above), the Senate has passed amendments by Senator:
- Cantwell (D-WA) regarding tribal participation in conservation programs, adopted 87-8.
- Sessions (R-AL) clarifying eligibility criteria for irrigation assistance.
- Franken (D-MN) to improve access to grocery delivery for homebound seniors.
- Vitter (R-LA) ending food stamp eligibility for ex-offenders, a highly controversial measure.
- Hagan (D-NC) to reduce crop insurance fraud, adopted 94-0.
Amendments that have been defeated on the Senate floor to date include amendments by Senator:
- Roberts (R-KS) to cut SNAP funding, defeated 40-58.
- Gillibrand (D-NY) to restore full funding for SNAP and reduce the level of government subsidy to private crop insurance companies, defeated 26-70.
- Inhofe (R-OK) to repeal SNAP and establish a nutrition state block grant program, defeated 36-60.
- Shaheen (D-NH) to repeal portions of the federal sugar program, defeated 45-54.
- Sanders (D-VT) to allow states to adopt GMO labeling laws, defeated 27-71.
- Feinstein (D-CA) to disallow taxpayer subsidies for crop insurance for tobacco, defeated 44-52.
Of the hundreds of amendments still pending, only a limited number will actually be allowed to move to debate and a vote. In addition to the Shaheen-Toomey amendment (see above), NSAC is also supporting, among others:
- Amendment 1088 by Senator Brown (D-OH) (with Senators Baldwin, Casey, Cowan, Gillibrand, Harkin, Heinrich, Mikulski, Reed, Schatz, Tester, Udall (NM), Whitehouse, and Wyden) to increasemarkets for farmers and improve access to healthy food, contributing to strong communities and a thriving economy. This amendment would provide much-needed funding and policy improvements for Value-Added Producer Grants, Business and Industry Loans for Local and Regional Food Enterprises, Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Community Food Program, and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program.
- Amendment 986 by Senator Casey (D-PA) (with Senators Harkin and Johanns) to authorize a microloan program at USDA to help young farmers get started in agriculture, with a simplified application process and specific terms for loans made to beginning and military veteran farmers and ranchers.
- Amendment 1093 by Senator Leahy (D-VT) (with Senators Cowan and Collins) to eliminate the discriminatory separate and lower payment limit for organic farmers participating in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
- Amendment 1049 by Senator Udall (D-NM) (with Senator Heinrich) to target EQIP irrigation payments on water conservation benefits and enhanced in-stream flows and water storage.
- Amendment 1055 by Senator Udall (D-NM) (with Senator Heinrich) to restore funding for the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program to closer to its 2008 Farm Bill level.
- Amendment 1080 by Senator Tester (D-MT) to enhance farmer access to seeds and breeds adapted to their regions and specific farming and market needs by designating conventional breeding for public cultivar and breed development as a high priority research area within USDA.
- Amendment 969 by Senator Grassley (R-IA) (with Senator Brown) to create a USDA special counsel for competition and antitrust enforcement activities in coordination with other federal agencies.