Just two weeks after the government re-opened, a joint committee of House and Senate members convened in a massive, ornate House hearing room and made the farm bill sound like the very salvation of Congress.
“This is the way things ought to work,” said former Senate Agriculture Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, as the committee sat down to complete the first five-year farm bill since 2008. “Get together in a conference committee and work these things out.”
“We’re going to lose credibility if we don’t get this bill done,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas. “We have to get this bill done.”
During a year when even the very routine has been out of reach thanks to an unprecedented level of partisan rancor, members on both sides are hopeful that they can resolve a veritable gulf of differences on the $500 billion farm bill, proving to the American public that during a year of bickering and dysfunction, it’s still possible to legislate.
But the risks are high. The House and Senate bills have vast differences. Most notably: How to deal with federal nutrition programs, or food stamps, which account for more than 80 percent of the farm bill. The last bill expired Sept. 30, 2012, and a one year extension to that bill expired at the end of September.
“Everyone calls it the farm bill, but it’s not really the farm bill,” said Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeville, a member of the House Agriculture Committee who argues that the nutrition portion of the bill has eclipsed the money for farmers.
The House bill includes sweeping reforms to food stamp programs that the Congressional Budget Office predicts would result in about $40 billion in cuts to the program over 10 years. The Senate bill is more modest, and would amount to about $4.5 billion in cuts over the same period.
Gibbs brushes off the number, though, saying that with the exception of a handful of House reforms, those who qualify for food stamps now will qualify later. People are too focused on the number, he insists, and not focused sufficiently on the reforms.
He said one reform will end the waiver to a requirement that those 18 to 50 without dependents can only receive three months of benefits. Gibbs said ending the waiver will force people to “get off the couch” and get a job or volunteer.
“I’m all for people who legitimately need help, giving them a helping hand, but if you make these programs so accessible, so easy to keep staying on, there’s no incentive to work to get off,” he said. “It’s just human nature. People kind of become dependent on it.”
But Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks, said those cuts will be particularly draconian. You can’t get a job, she says if there are no jobs available.
“Right now the data tells us there are three job seekers for every one job opening,” she said. “Forty percent of folks who receive (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits work already…but to randomly cut them off effective Jan. 1 and believe somehow they’ll be absorbed into a workforce that continues to shed jobs is inhumane.”
The food stamp program is the most divisive issue in the bill, but there are other issues to be resolved as well. Both the Senate and the House agreed to phase out direct payments to farmers and rely instead on crop insurance, but Gibbs worries that the House bill’s Price Loss Coverage program will become a de facto substitute for direct payments. The program would set target prices for a vast number of crops and pay farmers the difference if the price dips below that target. Gibbs said it undermines the concept of farm support.
“I can’t support a bill that’s paying farmers taxpayer dollars while they’re making money,” he said.
Gibbs and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, sent out a rare joint statement deriding the proposal, saying it would encourage farmers to overplant certain crops and distort the market.
Yvonne Lesicko of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation said the bureau wants to continue to have a strong crop insurance program. Because of the current program, farmers who endured a drought the summer before last didn’t have to ask for federal disaster relief. “Crop insurance got the job done,” she said. “The program works.”
One thing is certain: Farmers are desperate for a five-year farm bill.
Christopher Gibbs, a Shelby County farmer based in Maplewood, has farmed for 35 years. He currently farms 460 acres in Shelby and Logan counties, farming corn, soybeans and a calf-to-cow operation. He’s seen corn priced at $2 a bushel and, more recently, up to $6 or $7.
“I’ve seen it when I had to scrape pennies out of the couch to pay the bills,” he said.
His farm bill needs are simple: He wants a farm bill. And he wants it to have a good crop insurance program.
The lack of certainty, he said, has taken a toll.
Recently, his son began farming, taking out a direct loan with the USDA to purchase a small farm. The loan was approved in 2012 but has not yet been paid. He took out a bridge loan to pay the bills while he waited for the beginning farmer’s loan to be processed. Now the bridge loan’s due date is approaching. He’s still waiting, and has been told federal funding has not yet been released.
“That’s the uncertainty not having a farm bill provides,” Gibbs said.
Despite the vast differences, those negotiating have high hopes.
“I think we’re going to reach an agreement,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Cleveland, one of the conferees. “I do.”
Why the farm bill matters to you
Overall cost: Current farm and food stamp spending is around $97 billion a year, the equivalent of $300 for every man, woman and child in the United States. About 80 percent of the total goes to food stamps.
Proposed cuts: The Senate bill would save about $1.8 billion a year, while the House bill would save around $5.2 billion a year.
Food stamps: The Senate would cut about $400 million from food stamps, otherwise known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, by targeting states that give people small amounts of heating assistance so they can automatically qualify for higher food stamp benefits. The House bill would cut $4 billion yearly by making similar changes and eliminating “broad-based categorical eligibility,” or automatic food stamp benefits when people are signed up for certain other programs. The House bill would also allow states to create new work requirements and end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely.
Farm subsidies: Both bills would phase out farm subsidies, otherwise known as direct payments, which currently cost the government about $5 billion annually.
Crop insurance: Both bills would increase subsidies for federally subsidized crop insurance and create a new crop insurance program that covers small revenue losses on planted crops. The Senate bill also includes language that would lower government crop insurance subsidies for the wealthiest farmers. In addition, the Senate bill includes language that would require farmers who get crop insurance to comply with certain environmental standards.
Price protection: Both bills would raise “target prices” for some crops. Certain subsidies kick in if prices drop to those targets, meaning farmers will only receive the subsidies if prices are low. The House bill would raise those target prices higher than the Senate bill would, making it easier for the subsidies to kick in.
Dairy supports: Both the Senate bill and the House committee-passed bill included a dairy overhaul that would create new insurance for dairy farmers and also a stabilization program that could dictate how much milk is produced. But the House passed an amendment backed by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that would eliminate the stabilization program. Boehner has called the program “Soviet-style,” but supporters say it is needed to avoid overproduction if milk prices drop as they did in 2009.
Source: Associated Press