Wisconsin senators split on Farm Bill
Wisconsin's senators split on the Senate's newly passed version of farm legislation, properly called the "Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 (Farm Bill)."
Veteran Sen. Herb Kohl, a Democrat, who has announced he will not run for re-election this fall, voted in favor of the bill.
Newcomer Ron Johnson, a Republican, voted against it.
In a speech on the floor of the Senate, Kohl rose and encouraged his fellow senators to pass the bill, which they did by a 64-35 margin.
"Farm bills are difficult measures to shepherd through this chamber," he said. "There has never been - and never will be - a 'perfect' one in the eyes of every member of this body.
"But American agriculture needs a new Farm Bill and this one deserves our support for a variety of reasons," Kohl said.
The bill, he said, delivers over $23 billion dollars in savings, improves nutrition programs by curbing fraud and improving program integrity.
"Hungry Americans - many of whom are children - need a food safety net when times are tough," Kohl explained. "These changes support that safety net and deliver more accountability to taxpayers."
The bill also responds to concerns voiced by dairy farmers "who are hugely important to me and to Wisconsin," Kohl said. "Long-time farm policy observers know of my enduring interest in dairy policy."
The Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program, which Kohl helped create in earlier farm legislation, provided payments in time of low prices and cost the government nothing when dairy prices were robust.
"Dairy farmers today face new and different challenges," Kohl said. "In recent years they have seen situations where, despite robust milk prices, their input prices dramatically escalated and their margins evaporated."
The dairy policy included in the Senate's Farm Bill responds to that and establishes margin protection insurance. Participants will be given the option to choose the level of margin protection that makes the most sense for their dairy operations.
Kohl also supported a number of amendments to the bill. Among them were modifications to enhance rural development and programs for beginning farmers.
"Farm bills touch our nation in many different ways, and these are two areas that merit more attention and continued diligence," he said.
Kohl opposed a number of amendments because he said they would undermine agriculture exports, the ability to innovate, and the U.S. organic agriculture sector.
A sharp contrast to Kohl's support came from Johnson who called S. 3240, "the 2012 Food Stamp bill."
The bill will authorize spending of about $995 billion over the next 10 years. Of that nearly $1 trillion, 78 percent, or $772 billion, will be spent on food stamps, he noted.
"During debate on the Senate floor, I made a motion to recommit the bill back to committee with the simple instruction to split it into two separate pieces of legislation - a Food Stamp Bill and a Farm Bill," Johnson said. "That motion was defeated by a vote of 40-59."
"Why are these measures combined?" he asked. "The answer is simple - to keep much of the legislation out of the light of day and to make spending $1 trillion far easier."
"This is business as usual here in our nation's capital, and it is bankrupting America," Johnson added.
But veteran Congressional staffer Mario Castillo told Wisconsin State Farmer that the idea to split the nutrition programs from the farm programs has been tried many times before and it fails for a number of political and practical reasons.
"This proposal is not new," Castillo said. "It's not unlike Aunt Molly's ole sway-back mule - it's been trotted out time after time, but it's still a jackass of an idea. It fails again and again for good reason."
"The urban poor get just as hungry as the rural poor when hardship strikes them," he explained. "The urban hungry and the rural hungry are one and the same when it comes to an empty belly and they have the same need - food."
Castillo, now a Washington lobbyist and president of the Aegis Group, is the former chief of staff for the House Committee on Agriculture and worked on several Farm Bills.
Another problem he sees is that there are few congressional staffers with any long-term experience. They aren't there to point out what worked and didn't work in the past on legislation that comes around every few years like farm policy.
He sees it as more important than ever for Congress to tie farm policy legislation together with nutrition programs because of the shrinking number of farmers and rural people in the country.
"If you want a Farm Bill, you're going to need those urban votes."
Castillo believes that policies bringing food and fiber together in legislation belong together because they tie production to the people who eat.