Senators reach Farm Bill amendment compromise
Farm Bill negotiations were all about the amendments this week in the Senate.
Senators reached an agreement on Monday to limit to 73 the number of amendments brought to the floor of the Senate, from a possible 300 that had been introduced.
Political observers credited the work done by Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabbenow (D-MI) in getting the compromise done and paving the way for a vote on the Senate's version of the Farm Bill later this week.
The involvement of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in the talks that made way for the Senate to take action on the "Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012" was considered key to breaking the amendment stalemate.
Another key to the agreement was Stabbenow's working relationship with her committee's ranking Republican Pat Roberts (R-KS) who was able to bring along GOP members, many of whom generally agree that U.S. farmers need to have a Farm Bill passed this year.
The fact that the Senate will likely get a bill passed soon - perhaps by the end of the week - also puts pressure on the House to get its version of the measure passed. If the two houses pass versions that are incompatible, those differences must be worked out before a Farm Bill can become law.
Senate leadership has said that massive cuts to the food and nutrition programs in the House version will not be approved by the Senate.
Senators began working through the 73 remaining amendments on Tuesday (June 19) for the measure that will dictate federal farm policy and is estimated to cost $969 billion over the next 10 years.
On Tuesday, an amendment to strip subsidies from popcorn growers and another to raise grazing fees on federal land both failed to get enough support to bring them up for a vote.
A proposal to place a $75,000 cap on the total amount of loan deficiency payments and marketing loans one person can receive in a year was approved on a 75-24 margin. Current law has no cap.
National Farmers Union (NFU) said it strongly supports an amendment (2439) that would limit crop insurance subsidies provided to farmers with an adjusted gross income greater than $750,000.
Another amendment (2438) that establishes conservation compliance requirements for the federal crop insurance program is also strongly supported by NFU. With proposed cuts in federal programs that require conservation measures be applied by farmers, many have called for the crop insurance program to institute conservation compliance as one of its conditions.
Roger Johnson, NFU president, said his organization strongly opposes an amendment (2192) that drastically modifies the Value-Added Producer Grant program. That proposal would institute an audit by the Office of the Inspector General before distributing funding under the program.
That amendment was voted down by senators on Tuesday.
Also opposed by NFU is an amendment (2314) to eliminate the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).
Johnson said his organization also opposes an amendment that would eliminate funding for what they believe is important energy title programs, and another that would eliminate funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program.
Though it is often called "the Farm Bill" in legislative shorthand, about 75 percent of the measure deals with food and nutrition programs, including food stamps.
On Tuesday, senators rejected an amendment that would have restricted eligibility for food and nutrition programs.
The American Soybean Association (ASA) and other farm groups sent a strongly worded letter to senators opposing one amendment that would make checkoffs - the federally sanctioned research, promotion and marketing programs using farmer money - voluntary.
Checkoff programs are established by an act of Congress and overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service. The Farm Bill amendment proposed by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) would make the assessments from farmers voluntary for their generic marketing and research programs.
"The checkoff is not a tax. It is not something that is imposed upon us as farmers. Rather, it allows farmers to invest our own dollars to conduct research, build markets and create new uses for soy," said ASA President Steve Wellman, a soybean farmer from Syracuse, NB, who said he has paid into the checkoff since its establishment in 1992.
"Our checkoff program has produced a strong return of $6.40 in increased profit for every dollar invested."
Wellman noted that checkoff programs cost the government zero dollars.
"They are paid for and guided by the farmers they serve. Even USDA oversight of the soy checkoff is funded by soybean farmers," he said.
"Furthermore, farmers already have the chance to vote via referendum every five years whether we continue such checkoff programs," Wellman added.
On Tuesday, senators approved amendment 2190, introduced by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to reform federal milk marketing orders. It was approved on a 66-33 vote.
The amendment would require the USDA to provide analysis on the effects of amending each federal milk marketing order.
It also considers how best to update the current system of federal milk marketing orders which is now 12 years old.
Snowe called the current federal pricing scheme "outdated and unfair."
The amendment doesn't prescribe a solution, but initiates a process by which the USDA would created a new federal dairy pricing program.