Farm bill passes Senate Ag Committee virtually unscathed

Published on: May 14, 2013

The Senate Agriculture Committee powered through its approval of its farm bill mark, approving the measure by a 15-5 vote and setting up for a more heated debate on the commodity and nutrition titles when the full Senate takes up the bill as soon as June.

Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) allowed for discussion within her committee, but in the end, very few amendments were passed during the nearly 3 hour mark-up. As expected, the greatest concerns lied in the inclusion of target price supports to appease southern interests and the new ranking member Sen. Thad Cochran (R., Miss.) and nutrition funding, with discussion that the cuts are too much, and others suggesting the cuts should go deeper.

Voting against the bill were Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.), Sen. Mike Johanns (R., Neb.), Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.)

The mark proposed to the committee this year included the Adverse Market Protection (AMP) program which provides a target price for those who do not wish to participate in the Senate's shallow-loss revenue program or crop insurance. Thune attempted to eliminate the target price option for anyone besides rice and peanuts, the two southern crops that have called for a safety net beyond crop insurance. He said the Congressional Budget Office scored the change at a savings of $897 million.

Former committee chairman Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) voted against the farm bill last year because it didn't meet the needs of his farmers, but this year he welcomed the addition of a program that lets producers choose which program fits best for them.

During the farm bill writing last year, Roberts did not allow for the inclusion of higher target prices in the bill, and in the committee debate explained the overall approach is not a "reform bill" but a "rearview mirror bill" which makes U.S. farm policy more trade distorting and doesn't encourage farmers to farm for the market, but instead for the government price support.

Johanns said during his time as the agriculture secretary, he spent many hours with the Brazilians, who challenged and successfully won a World Trade Organization challenge against U.S. cotton policies. He said the Brazilians made very clear at the time their case was not about cotton, but the entire approach to farm policy.

Johanns said by including all commodities the ability to choose the AMP program it is exasperating the trade ramifications. He said if the higher target prices are used, he expects more WTO challenges and those challenges "will be successful."

Amendments minimal

Many of the amendments proposed, were later withdrawn, or suggested to find improved solutions ahead of the floor debate.

Gillibrand attempted to again preserve the $4 billion in nutrition cuts and also defended many of the loophole changes others proposed.

Johanns introduced an amendment to restrict the categorical eligibility for qualifying for food stamps. Roberts also discussed, but did not call for a vote, his broader sweeping reforms for the nutrition title that he's introduced earlier this year.

Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) introduced several amendments in an attempt to simplify the conservation title. However, Stabenow encouraged many to vote against, as not to interfere with support that was won from both environmentalists and agricultural groups who forged an agreement on including conservation compliance to crop insurance.

COOL

The issue of country-of-origin labeling (COOL) was discussed by Johanns, who proposed for a repeal of the law. He called it a "regulatory nightmare" and said even if the WTO doesn't say the new rule USDA expects to have out before May 23, doesn't discriminate, "it's poor policy."

Chambliss asked Johanns to consider introducing a fix during floor debate, as something needs to be done. Chambliss added COOL is "the most confusing issues I have seen in all my years on the ag committee."

Johanns again voiced concerns over trade issues, and added despite this spanning over multiple administrations under both Republican and Democratic control, at the end of the day something needs to be figured out to try and figure out how to deal with this without a WTO case coming against the U.S.

Other members did voice support for food labeling and COOL, including Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) who said he said one of the main things he hears from his constituents is that labeling matters.