Senate begins debate on slimmed-down farm bill

June 6, 2012

It’s as if the cows have come home.

The farm bill was once regarded as one of the main legislative vehicles by which members of Congress could deliver pork-
barrel spending to their constituents.

It was always a bloated, contentious piece of legislation that grew larger and more expensive as it lumbered through Congress.

But the farm bill that the Senate will begin debating Thursday is a considerably slimmed-down version of previous incarnations. It would slash tens of billions of dollars in direct subsidies to farmers and in the federal food stamp program.

It may the be most tangible symbol yet that the age of austerity has dawned in Washington. The bill, which sets the nation’s agricultural and food policy for the next five years, enjoys rare bipartisan support and could
be the only significant piece of deficit-reduction legislation to gain congressional approval this year.

“This isn’t your father’s farm bill,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said Wednesday.

The measure would cost $969 billion over the next decade, but would cut $23.6 billion over the same period. The reductions are more than double those proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission, but short of the $32 billion in cuts proposed by President Obama and the $181 billion in reductions in the budget plan passed by House Republicans this year. The difference is that this farm bill is likely to be signed into law.

Much of the savings in the Senate bill would come from cutting $15 billion in direct subsidies to farmers, which essentially pay them not to grow certain crops. Subsidies were a coveted perk of long standing embraced by Southern and Midwestern lawmakers, but with Washington eager to demonstrate its newfound fiscal restraint, supporters said Wednesday that the funding was becoming harder to justify politically.

“You’ve got a lot of people here who aren’t going to support direct payments,” said Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), who served as agriculture secretary for President George W. Bush. Despite the cuts, Johanns said, “I could count on one hand the number of farmers who pushed back and said, ‘No, I still want the direct payment.’ ”

The changes are fueled in part by the fact that in a relatively robust agricultural economy, most farmers have been less reliant on government subsidies to survive.

Stabenow said that they also understand the realities of the times.

“Agriculture families, farmers, communities understand that we’re in a time of deficits and we’re willing to do our part,” she told reporters. “We know that the era of direct payments are over, that we’re not paying for crops that farmers don’t grow or when they’re doing well.”

Wealthier farmers, those earning more than $750,000 annually, would be barred from receiving any federal farm money. In an effort to cut food stamp fraud, the bill also would ban some lottery winners from receiving federal food aid.

At least 60 senators are expected to vote to move the bill forward, and whatever clashes occur are likely to take place across regional rather than partisan lines.

“This is a north/central farm bill, but eventually it will affect the whole country,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).

Burr and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said peanut farmers in their states need more assistance because they face different farming schedules and a more volatile market than those who grow wheat, corn and other crops.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who represents a huge urban constituency, said she will fight to restore $4.5 billion in proposed cuts to the federal food stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“It’s unacceptable in this day and age that any child in America should be going hungry, and it’s the wrong set of priorities for America,” Gillibrand told reporters. “There shouldn’t be a senator who serves in the Senate who doesn’t protect the hungry children in their state.”

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank D. Lucas (R-
Okla.)
warned that his version of the bill will include closer to $33 billion in savings and deeper cuts to food stamps.

In an interview, Lucas said he is hopeful that the approval of deep cuts and structural reforms in the Democratic-controlled Senate could bode well for final House-Senate negotiations later this year.

“I’m operating in an environment where my friends on the left don’t want to spend any money on rural America and my friends on the right don’t want to spend any money on anybody,” Lucas said.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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