Conference committee agrees on farm bill
by Jay Sjerven
WASHINGTON — A conference committee of the Senate and the House of Representatives on Jan. 27 reached an agreement on a final farm bill, the Agricultural Act of 2014. The compromise legislation will be submitted to the full Senate and House for votes. If the measure passes both houses of Congress, it will be sent to President Barack Obama for his signature, which would end a two-year congressional odyssey to hammer out a replacement for the Food, Conservation and Energy Act, whose extended tenure expired on Oct. 1, 2013.
Enactment also would prevent the resurrection of obsolete farm programs embodied in “permanent law,” i.e. the Farm Act of 1949. The most immediate effect of such a reversion to permanent law would have been to require the US Department of Agriculture to begin purchasing milk from producers at levels much higher than the market price, which, in turn, would have prodded a spike in retail milk prices in the next several weeks.
The Agricultural Act would end direct payments to producers that began 18 years ago and whose aim at that time was to begin weaning producers from previous income protection subsidies. Instead, the direct payments became the fixture in recent farm bills even as they increasingly became viewed as indefensible, especially at a time of both strong farm prices and tightening budgets across all levels of government. The bill would bolster support to crop insurance programs, which have become the centerpiece of federal support to production agriculture.
The bill would reduce spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by an estimated $8 billion over 10 years. Congressional agriculture committee leaders asserted the cuts largely would be achieved by cracking down on what were claimed to be excessive payments to individuals in states that provided token amounts of fuel assistance to SNAP households in order to allow them to secure higher food and nutrition benefits than otherwise would be the case. Bill proponents asserted the spending cuts would not remove anyone from the SNAP program while ensuring that every person receives the benefits they are intended to receive under the rules of the program.
The Senate in its original farm bill authorized a $4 billion cut in SNAP funding over 10 years, whereas the House in its nutrition bill called for $39 billion in cuts.
The Agricultural Act would leave intact the protectionist sugar program, retain country-of-origin labeling (COOL) on meat and poultry products, and introduced a compromise reform of the dairy program.
“I am proud of our efforts to finish a farm bill conference report with significant savings and reforms,” said Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture. “We are putting in place sound policy that is good for farmers, ranchers, consumers, and those who have hit difficult times. I appreciate the work of everyone who helped in this process. We never lost sight of the goal, and we never wavered in our commitment to enacting a five-year, comprehensive farm bill.”
Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said, “Today’s bipartisan agreement puts us on the verge of enacting a five-year farm bill that saves taxpayers billions, eliminates unnecessary subsidies, creates a more effective farm safety-net and helps farmers and businesses create jobs. This bill proves that by working across party lines, we can reform programs to save taxpayer money while strengthening efforts to grow our economy. Agriculture is a bright spot in our economy and is helping to drive our recovery. It’s time for Congress to finish this farm bill and give the 16 million Americans working in agriculture the certainty they need and deserve.”