It looks like the Senate will start debating its version of the 2012 Farm Bill - and folks from all sides of the debate are gearing up. This week the American Farm Bureau Federation sent a letter to the Senate outlining that organization's priorities, while at least one Senator from the Ag Committee wants to roll back some cuts. Yet Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is optimistic not only about debate starting this week, but passage of the measure within two to three weeks.
That timing is important because, frankly, the Senate and the House are running out of time. The calendars for Congress will wind down as election time nears and to avoid a lame-duck farm bill lawmakers need to make progress.
As for Sen. Stabenow, a Feedstuffs report on her conference call Monday, shows her to be optimistic about getting the bill to the floor for debate, and passed soon. The bill - which ends direct payments and scores $23 billion in savings over the next 10 years, was adopted in one of the fastest farm bill markup sessions in history back in April.
Stabenow says she expects to easily get the 60 votes needed to avoid cloture, if needed. In the Senate many amendments can be proposed, and she recognized that many will be introduced. Some regions of the country are against the end of direct payments that are part of the Senate version.
Rice and peanut growers had been lukewarm to the proposed Agriculture Risk Coverage program. A new analysis shows that had ARC been in place in the past, the program would be effective in protecting farmers from losses, and that the program is fair for all commodities, Stabenow says.
Association weighs in
In its letter to the Senate, AFBF President Bob Stallman says that while he believes the Senate version of the farm bill - S. 3240 - moves toward the organization's core principles for rational, acceptable farm policy and his organization supports the bill, there may be some tweaks needed. "While the legislation addresses many Farm Bureau policy priorities, it is our sincere hope there will be additional opportunities to make adjustments and refinements to improve this legislation," Stallman says.
Some areas the association says could "benefit from additional policy work" include addressing the net effect of the Agriculture Risk Coverage Eligible Acres provisions to ensure a true "planted acres" approach and avoid recreating "base acres" issues that have raised equity and planting distortion concerns; and re-instituting current payment limitations and the Adjusted Gross Income provisions in current law.
In the letter, Stallman wrote: "Fundamentally, Farm Bureau continues to support a single program option for the commodity title that extends to all crops. We believe the safety net should be comprised of a strong crop insurance program, with continuation of the marketing loan program and a catastrophic revenue loss program based on county level losses for each crop."
Restoring SNAP cuts
But one Senator, who is also a member of the Senate Ag Committee, is decidedly unhappy about at least one area of cuts in the bill. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., wants to restore the proposed $4.5 billion in cuts to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Payments that are now part of the current version of the bill.
Gillibrand was vocal during the markup hearing that these cuts were not acceptable and a big burden to households just getting by. In her press statement, where she teamed up with New York City restaurateur and "Top Chef" star Tom Colicchio, New York City Coalition Against Hunger Executive Director Joel Berg, Food Bank for New York City President & CEO Margarette Purvis, AARP NY State Director Joan Parrot-Fonseca, Environmental Working Group, she argued for ending the cuts.
Gillibrand points out that the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the proposed SNAP cuts would result in an average benefit cut of $90 per month, or 32% for nearly a half-million households, "meaning a significant cut to food dollars for these families," the release says.
~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~She says when Senate debate begins on the bill, she will offer an amendment to restore the proposed $4.5 billion in cuts by reducing federal subsidies for crop insurance companies "who already make huge profits every year," she says.
The Senator points to data that shows that SNAP dollars "have a $1.71 return on investment in the economy…creating a 'ripple effect' through the economy."
Says Gillibrand in her release: "This farm bill is much more than a set of esoteric numbers. It's very much about the decisions we are making regarding economic growth, regarding our agriculture industries, and the moral obligation we have to our families that are at risk. Food stamps are an extraordinary investment."
Ken Cook, president, Environmental Working Group, joined in the Gillibrand release: "Giving away generous tax dollars to large crop insurance companies every year doesn't make any sense. Doesn't it make more sense to help feed struggling families and to encourage kids to crave fruits and vegetables - and to pay for that effort by cutting the payments we give to these profitable corporations? We urge the full Senate to pass Senator Gillibrand's amendment so millions of children won't go to bed hungry and will have a better shot at forming healthier eating habits."
The challenge ahead
This is just one potential battle ground for the Senate debate. Peanut and rice growers have high-cost crops that need safety nets that differ from that needed for corn and soybean growers. Whether the Senate can get away from a one-size-fits-all approach remains to be seen. When Sen. Saxby Chamblis, R-Ga., commented during the Senate markup he noted it was time that programs were better tailored to regional differences and needs.
Of course, when the Senate version is complete it must wait for the House version, which will likely have significant differences. According to media reports, the House could mark up its version of the bill as early as the week of June 18. The House Ag Appropriations Subcommittee will be marking up its appropriations bill Wednesdsay, June 6.
While both House and Senate members have been vocal about getting a 2012 Farm Bill passed before the election, outside observers have been more skeptical. Last week on "This Week in Agribusiness", Charlie Stenholm, former Texas Congressman, and now a successful lobbyist, laid out the steps and the issues ahead. Check it out in this section of the show.