Senate Agriculture Committee Plows Forward on Farm Bill

Jerry Hagstrom
National Journal

The Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday approved a five-year farm bill that reveals a new consensus on crop and nutrition policy, but it emerged over the objections of three Republican senators from the Plains—Pat Roberts of Kansas, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, and John Thune of South Dakota—who offered amendments on food stamps and commodities that a majority of the panel rejected.

The bill will be on the Senate floor next week, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said late Tuesday. The House Agriculture Committee has a farm-bill markup scheduled for Wednesday. Farm leaders in the House and Senate are trying to send a farm bill to President Obama before Sept. 30, when the current extension of the 2008 farm bill expires.

Stabenow has advertised the legislation as first and foremost a reform bill. The new Senate bill would cost $955 billion over 10 years but $23 billion less than if the programs in the 2008 farm bill were extended, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The Senate bill eliminates the $4.9 billion in direct payments that crop farmers have been getting whether prices are high or low; consolidates conservation programs; and makes a $4 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP or food stamps, which is projected to cost more than $700 billion over 10 years.

The new Senate consensus is based on the relatively small cut to food stamps and the bill’s offering crop farmers a choice between two commodity-support programs: the Agricultural Risk Coverage Program, which would make payments to farmers for shallow losses that are not covered by crop insurance; and the Adverse Market Payments Program, which would make payments to farmers when prices fall below certain targeted levels. Northern farmers like what’s becoming known as ARC because it tops off the crop-insurance program they participate in, while Southern farmers, particularly rice and peanut growers, like AMP because they find it difficult to make crop insurance work for them.

The impact of the shift in ranking member from Roberts, who held that position last year, to Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., could be felt throughout the markup. Last year, Roberts went along with Stabenow’s proposal for the small cut in food stamps by eliminating eligibility for lottery and gambling winners and raising the amount of money that states must pay low-income people in heating assistance to qualify them for higher food-stamp payments. But this year, Roberts introduced his own bill for food-stamp cuts that would total more than $30 billion over 10 years. Johanns and Thune also offered amendments to cut food stamps.

Mississippi has one of the highest food-stamp participation rates in the country, and Cochran opposed the Roberts, Johanns, and Thune amendments. Noting his experience as Agriculture secretary, Johanns offered an amendment to end “categorical eligibility,” a policy under which states can qualify people who receive other welfare benefits for food stamps without going through the entire application process. Johanns said some states were taking advantage of the system, but Cochran said, “What the amendment will do as a practical matter is that it changes the categorical eligibility for the supplemental nutrition program and limits to those defined in the [Temporary Assistance to Needy Families] program. It has the potential of displacing 1.8 million people who are currently eligible as program participants.” Cochran also said it could affect the free meals of 280,000 children and would hamper the states’ ability to administer the program. The amendments for further cuts to food stamps were voted down.

When Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said they disliked all cuts to food stamps, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., signaled unity between Northern liberals and the Southern states that have some of the highest food-stamp usage by saying he is concerned about the nutrition cuts that are in the bill and would like to find a way to eliminate them.

When the commodity title came up, Roberts, Johanns, and Thune also objected to the new target-price proposal that had not been included in the bill last year when he was ranking member. Roberts made the case that target prices are out of date in a market-oriented era and that the target prices that have been set for rice and peanuts are too high. He and Johanns also said they fear that other countries could challenge the program in the World Trade Organization. Thune proposed eliminating target prices for all crops except rice and peanuts, because those target prices are needed to guarantee the bill’s passage. Yet other committee members rejected all those proposals.

The committee passed the bill on a roll-call vote of 15-5. Roberts, Johanns, and Thune voted against the final bill. They were joined by Gillibrand, who decided to leave her fight over that issue for the floor. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also voted against the bill, but he did not attend the markup and voted by proxy.

It was odd to see the three Northern Plains Republicans cast as too fiscally conservative and market-oriented for the rest of the committee. And it will be interesting to see what role they play as the bill proceeds. It’s normal for senators from states where agriculture is the most important industry to be outliers on the farm bill.