Path to the 2012 Farm Bill: House Agriculture Committee Debates and Passes Its Farm Bill
July 12th, 2012
After a full-day marathon markup that started on Wednesday morning and went into the early hours of Thursday, the House Agriculture Committee passed its version of the 2012 Farm Bill by a vote of 35-11. Seven Democrats and four Republicans voted against the bill. The Republicans who voted against the bill did so based on commodity program disagreements and fiscal concerns, while the Democrats in opposition did so because of the deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps.
Overall, Wednesday’s markup yielded some notable improvements to the bill for sustainable agriculture, but some big losses as well. Ahead of the markup, almost 100 amendments were filed and throughout the day, more were added. Continue reading to learn more about the sustainable agriculture amendments that passed, those that failed, and other notable outcomes from Wednesday’s markup. Our views on the bill as a whole will be forthcoming later in a separate post.
Sustainable Agriculture Amendments that Passed
Local and Regional Food — Most notably, a bipartisan amendment offered by Representatives Pingree (D-ME), Ellmers (R-NC), and Gibson (R-NY) to enhance farm to school procurement passed by a voice vote. The amendment will give more control to states and local communities by authorizing schools with low annual commodity entitlement (often small rural schools) to start making their own food purchases. The amendment also creates demonstration projects in at least 10 schools to test farm to school procurement models as alternatives to national USDA commodity food distribution.
A few other amendments making improvements for local food production also passed by voice votes. Representative Fortenberry (R-NE) offered an amendment to make fixes to the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program to create program priorities for aiding small and mid-scale farms, helping underserved areas, and improving USDA’s ability to implement the program.
Representative Pingree offered two additional amendments that were accepted. The first was her amendment to enable SNAP recipients to use benefits for purchases of Community Supported Agriculture shares. The second would require USDA to make recommendations on steps that need to be taken to better serve small and very small meat and poultry processing facilities and to improve user access to information on the meat and poultry label approval process.
Representative Pingree withdrew an amendment to remove the cap and make improvements to the Business and Industry Loan Program (B&I) for local and regional enterprise loan guarantees in the draft bill, with the understanding that she could work with Committee leadership to craft an amendment that might have the Chair’s backing before the next step in the farm bill process.
All of the above amendments stemmed from language originally introduced as the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act by Representative Pingree and many others.
There were a couple more local food amendments that passed by a voice vote. The first was an amendment by Representative Sewell (D-AL) that requires USDA to conduct a study on increasing specialty crop production by small, women, minority, and socially disadvantaged farmers. The second was one by Representative Johnson (R-IL) designating that $5 million of the $15 million provided in the bill for Community Food Grants be used for programs to incentivize farmers’ market use by SNAP recipients.
Beginning Farmers — While the major beginning farmer funding amendment was withdrawn (see below), a number of other amendments passed that improved certain beginning farmer provisions. An amendment offered by Representatives Fudge (D-OH) and Fortenberry (R-NE) to authorize microloans for beginning, young, and small farmers, as well as a community based intermediary micro farm lending program, passed by a voice vote. Representatives Boswell (D-IA) and Gibson (R-NY) successfully passed by a voice vote an amendment to authorize a military veterans liaison at USDA.
Representatives Fortenberry and Walz (D-MN) offered an amendment to restore important provisions to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and its authorization for appropriations; this amendment also passed by a voice vote. Ahead of that vote, Ranking Member Peterson (D-MN) and Chairman Lucas (R-OK) engaged in a colloquy deciding that a provision in the bill establishing new very high matching grant requirements for this program and many other applied research and extension programs will be revisited prior to the next steps in the farm bill process.
All of these beginning farmer and veteran issues were part of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act introduced last year by Representatives Walz and Fortenberry.
Organic — The only successful amendment on organic agriculture was one by Representative Welch (D-VT) to make improvements to organic crop insurance by extending the language from the 2008 Farm Bill on organic price elections and the premium surcharge. The amendment passed by a voice vote.
Sustainable Agriculture Amendments that Failed
A bipartisan amendment offered by Representatives Walz, Noem (R-SD), and Fortenberry to authorize a national Sodsaver provision to protect native grasslands and reinvest $35 million of the $66 million in savings into the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program was withdrawn and not voted on. The deciding factor on whether or not to move ahead was Chairman Lucas’ (R-OK) vehement opposition (despite his earlier statements of support), on behalf of landowners in Oklahoma and Texas, to a national Sodsaver provision. The underlying bill limits Sodsaver to the Prairie Pothole Region of the Great Plains, greatly limiting the effectiveness of the provision. While speaking in support of the amendment, Representative Walz reminded his colleagues that the amendment had support from “greens, guns, and God,” making reference to the broad support for a national Sodsaver provision by conservation, hunting, and religious groups. Representatives Lucas and Conaway (R-TX) argued unashamedly that receiving taxpayer subsidies for insurance premiums for plowing up virgin grassland is not an ill-advised federal subsidy but rather a property right of landowners in their respective states that should not be violated.
Along with farm groups from across the country, NSAC strongly opposed an amendment offered by Representatives Conaway (R-TX) and Costa (D-CA) to repeal the GIPSA livestock and poultry producer fair competition rules. The amendment repeals livestock and poultry farmer protections included in the 2008 Farm Bill. It also undoes the current broadly supported compromise that was agreed to in the Fiscal Year 2012 Agriculture Appropriations conference agreement to allow parts of the rule to become final, after broader proposed GIPSA rules were blocked. The incredibly misguided amendment passed by a voice vote after its sponsors falsely claimed the final rules already issued by USDA went beyond what Congress dictated to USDA in the 2008 Farm Bill.
Representative Fortenberry offered and withdrew an amendment that would have placed reasonable limits on commodity payments and would have closed eligibility loopholes in commodity programs to make sure that payments go to farmers instead of absentee landowners or private investors. The Congressman promised his colleagues that he would return with the same amendment when the bill is debated on the House floor. The amendment is expected to fare much better on the floor, where mega farms that abuse the system may have fewer protectors than in Committee.
This was the only amendment offered that would have brought any real reform to the farm safety net proposed in the House’s draft bill. It is a shame that the same level of scrutiny and debate applied to alleged SNAP fraud and abuse during Committee markup did not apply to commodity programs where abuse is built into the very structure of the program as established by Congress and administered by USDA.
Representatives McIntyre (D-NC) and Walz attempted to improve the new Whole Farm Diversified revenue insurance product in the underlying bill to cover farms with liabilities of up to $1.5 million, the same figure as included in the Senate-passed farm bill and $500,000 higher than the House level. That amendment was defeated 19-25.
Representative Sewell (D-AL) tried to create a priority for strategic regional rural economic development projects with rural development grant and loan programs, but the amendment was defeated 18-26.
To everyone’s surprise, Representative Costa (D-CA) offered last-minute an amendment to restore funding for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program, which the draft bill repeals. The amendment was pushed to a vote, and it failed 17-27. There is ideological opposition to the program by select Members on the Committee, despite broader support. Because the amendment was unexpected, we do not count this as a true representation of the level of support for the program by the Committee.
Other Notable Outcomes of Markup
Markup began with debate on Title I, the commodity title, and two amendments were the focus of that debate. One was on dairy and another on sugar. The dairy amendment was offered by Representatives Goodlatte (R-VA) and David Scott (D-GA), and would have removed supply management provisions from the proposed new dairy program. It failed, 17-29. The sugar amendment, also offered by Representative Goodlatte, would have removed the key provisions in the sugar program. It failed, 10-36.
Debate on the Nutrition Title consumed the majority of the attention of Committee Members and lasted for several hours. Despite the hours of debate, no changes were made to the overall cuts proposed in the draft bill. Representative McGovern’s (D-MA) amendment to restore the cuts failed, 31-15. Representative Schrader (D-OR) offered another amendment to replace the Nutrition Title from the draft bill with that in the Senate-passed farm bill (which would have reduced the overall cut to $4.5 billion); that amendment also failed. Efforts to make deeper cuts to SNAP, by Representative Huelskamp (R-KS), Representative Roby (R-AL), and others, also failed.
The committee moved quickly through debate on the Conservation Title. The only amendment offered was by Rep. Costa (D-CA) to designate a portion of Environmental Quality Incentives Program Conservation Innovation Grants for air quality in California and several other states — failed to pass on an 18-26 vote.
Again, we will be saying more about our reaction to the overall bill and its prospects in a separate post.