WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Jan. 29 approved by a vote of 251 to 166 the Agricultural Act of 2014, the Senate-House conference report comprising a compromise farm bill to replace the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, whose extended tenure expired on Oct. 1, 2013. The conference report now will be debated and voted upon in the Senate.
If the Senate passes the Agricultural Act of 2014, the legislation will be sent to the White House for the president’s signature. The White House indicated the president will sign the act as written, which would end a congressional odyssey to hammer out a new farm act that has lasted nearly three years.
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 Congressional Budget Office indicated that the farm bill, including the sequester, will yield $23 billion in cuts in agriculture and nutrition spending over 10 years compared with the current farm law. Farm program spending would be reduced $18.4 billion over 10 years, conservation program spending would be reduced $6.1 billion, and spending on nutrition programs would be reduced $8 billion.
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 provide token amounts of home-heating 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 bill would do this by preventing states from listing a utility bill on an individual’s food-assistance application unless the person receives at least $20 per year in home heating assistance, or if the person produces his or her utility bill.
“This change does not affect 96 percent of SNAP recipients,” said a spokesman for the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. “All recipients will continue to receive 100 percent of the SNAP benefits their actual expenses call for under the current rules of the program. The 2014 Farm Bill does not remove anyone from the SNAP 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 sugar program, retain country-of-origin labeling (COOL) on meat and poultry products, and introduce a compromise reform of the dairy program.