New Farm Bill links, plus Iowa political reaction

President Barack Obama will finally have an opportunity to sign a five-year Farm Bill into law. The U.S. House approved the conference committee report today by 251 votes to 166, and the U.S. Senate is expected to approve the deal this week. The House roll call shows an unusual partisan split. Iowa’s four representatives were all among the 162 Republicans and 89 Democrats who voted for the final deal. But 63 House Republicans and 103 Democrats voted no, a mixture of conservatives who objected to spending in the $956 billion bill and liberals who opposed cuts to nutrition programs.

Although 41 representatives and senators served on the conference committee (including Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Steve King), the four top-ranking members of House and Senate Agriculture Committees hashed out the final details. King’s controversial amendment aimed at California’s egg regulations was left on the cutting room floor.

After the jump I’ve posted several takes on the farm bill’s key provisions and comments from the Iowa delegation.  

Erik Wasson reported for The Hill,

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said Tuesday that the $1 trillion farm bill coming up for a vote on Wednesday will reduce deficits by $16.6 billion over the next ten years.

The deficit score is less than the $23 billion touted by House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders on Monday when the bill was released.

An aide explained that the committee uses a different baseline than CBO because the CBO already incorporates $6.4 billion in sequestration cuts. Accounting for the change, the $23 billion reduction still stands, the aide said.

The House-passed farm bill was scored by CBO as saving $51 billion while the Senate bill was scored as saving $17.7 billion.

CBO said the new bill will cost $956 billion over ten years. Most of the spending, to the tune of $756 billion is on food stamps.

For months, the cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps,

were the biggest roadblock in the farm bill negotiations. Last summer, Iowa’s Democratic Senator Harkin and Republican Senator Chuck Grassley voted for the Senate farm bill, which cut SNAP by about $4 billion over 10 years. Iowa’s four U.S. House members split along party lines when the House approved a Republican bill with $39 billion in cuts over the same time frame.

Under the conference committee agreement,

The bill finds $8.6 billion in savings [over ten years] by requiring households to receive at least $20 per year in home heating assistance before they automatically qualify for food stamps, instead of the $1 threshold now in place in some states.

SNAP recipients nationwide already saw their benefits reduced in November, when a temporary increase included as part of the 2009 federal stimulus package expired. The new cuts enacted as part of the farm bill seem unnecessarily harsh, and House Republicans should be ashamed for insisting on them. Many families who are already struggling will find it harder to make ends meet. Supposedly this provision won’t affect Iowans on food stamps, though:

The main food-stamp change being discussed in Congress involves tightening a “loophole” used in other states, state administrator Jean Slaybaugh told legislators today. Slaybaugh, chief financial officer for the Department of Human Services, said the measure in question allows residents in some states to qualify for food stamps if they obtain even a small amount of public assistance with heating costs. “We don’t do that in Iowa,” Slaybaugh told a panel of legislators who oversee her department’s budget.

The food-stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, serves 437,000 Iowans, Slaybaugh said. The Iowa recipients receive an average of $1,429 annually per person. […]

A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who helped negotiated the farm bill’s terms, confirmed that the food-stamp cut is aimed at states that use the heating-aid eligibility rule. “Iowa is not one of those states, and thus, Iowans will be unaffected by this,” said the spokeswoman, Kate Cyrul Frischmann.

An amendment Steve King got through the House Agriculture Committee last May was another flashpoint during the conference committee talks. Its language targeted a California regulation on egg producers.

“California passed a law…that mandates that beginning 2015 no eggs be brought into or sold in the state unless they are laid by hens that are raised in facilities that are effectively double the infrastructure costs to our producers,” King said this past Wednesday during the Farm Bill conference committee’s first public meeting.

That California law, passed as the result of a statewide referendum in 2008, requires cages to be large enough to allow egg-laying hens to stand and spread their wings. Iowa is the nation’s top egg-producing state and, according to King, California’s law would effectively prohibit Iowa eggs from being sold there.

“The commerce clause in the constitution prohibits trade protectionism between the states,” King said.

Some states have or are considering regulating the size of the pens or crates in which pigs and calves are raised and King’s proposal could deal with those as well.

Opponents, including some House Republicans, viewed King’s amendment as a threat to states’ rights, protected under the 10th Amendment. Others worried it would nullify not only the California law but many other state laws relating to the environment, food safety, or animal welfare. In fact, the Humane Society’s advocacy arm spent $100,000 on advertising to persuade conference committee members to reject the King amendment.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack saw the King amendment as “troublesome,” while Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey vigorously defended King’s effort:

“It is very troublesome that Secretary Vilsack appears to be siding with California and the Humane Society of the United States rather than standing up for all farmers producing legal and safe agriculture products. If the secretary truly has concerns about the King amendment, then he should work to address those concerns while the bill is in conference committee rather than speaking out against it. […]

“California should not be allowed to dictate production methods to the rest of the country. This has the makings of an internal U.S. trade war. If it starts with eggs, you can be sure it won’t end with eggs.”

I was amused to see that those last three sentences from Northey’s statement are identical to phrasing from an egg industry consultant’s e-mail to the Los Angeles Times.

“California should not be allowed to dictate production methods to the rest of the country,” [Ken] Klippen said in an email to The Times. “This has the makings of an internal US trade war. If it starts with eggs, you can be sure it won’t end with eggs.”

Not comforting to be reminded yet again that Iowa’s secretary of agriculture often acts as a mouthpiece for corporate interest groups.

But I digress.

In recent months, King’s office did not respond to my requests for comment on whether he would vote for a final farm bill if the conference report did not include his amendment. The statement his office released today (enclosed below) indicates that he will keep fighting against regulations he views as unfair to livestock producers. I assume he will try to attach a similar amendment to other bills.

Senator Chuck Grassley was justifiably angry that the conference report “watered down” provisions that had cleared both chambers of Congress.

Grassley says, “The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, chairing the conference committee, decided he didn’t like it because it wasn’t good for Southern agriculture, so he just simply neutered them, effectively.” Representative Frank Lucas, a Republican from Oklahoma, chairs the panel and Grassley says he’s very dissatisfied with actions Lucas has taken in the $500-billion bill.

According to Grassley, the new farm bill contains target prices and other safety nets for rice, cotton and peanuts that are better than the current farm bill. “There’s still things in there he wants you to believe that he’s doing what I want done, but it’s got so many conditions, so many loopholes,” he says. The new farm bill, according to Grassley, is “bad for agriculture, it’s bad for taxpayers who are worried about the debt, it’s bad for our credibility with trading partners, and it’s bad for the future of farm programs.”

One provision of Grassley’s that was removed would have limited the number of managers who could benefit from individual farming operations to one. With that element gone, Grassley says the bill will lead to tremendous waste. Grassley says, “One farming operation had 16 managers and there’s so many loopholes, every third cousin of every farming operation is going to benefit from the farm program.”

Grassley says a select few members of Congress are allowing the farm program to be “exploited by putting wealthy, so-called farmers ahead of small- and medium-sized farms and young and beginning farmers.”

The Center for Rural Affairs likewise blasted the “back-room deal”:

“Big agribusiness likes to throw its weight around behind closed doors in Washington,” said Brian Depew, Executive Director of the Center for Rural Affairs. “That is what they have done as House and Senate negotiators met in private to hammer out this final deal.”

“The reports we’ve heard indicate that the lead negotiators intend to reject the bipartisan farm subsidy reform that was included in the farm bills passed in both the House and Senate,” said Traci Bruckner, Senior Policy Associate at the Center for Rural Affairs. “If what we’ve heard proves true, the deal will result in virtually unlimited farm program payments continuing to inure to the nation’s largest and wealthiest mega-farms.”

And those mega-farms will continue to drive up land prices, drive their smaller neighbors out of business and shut the beginning farmers out of the land market, Bruckner explained.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group pointed to other flaws:

“At a time of record farm income the agriculture committees once again chose to increase unlimited subsidies to the most profitable and financially secure farm businesses at the expense of hungry children and the environment,” said Ken Cook, EWG President. “The cuts to conservation programs are particularly egregious at a time when we are putting unprecedented pressure on our land and water resources.”

According to the EWG, the new subsidies created to replace the direct payments to farmers “are worse for taxpayers and the environment than the subsidies they are replacing.”

Rarely do I find myself agreeing more with Chuck Grassley than with the Iowa Democrats in Congress. However, the more I learn about the conference report, the more this bill looks like a missed opportunity with a few good provisions, as opposed to sound policy with a few flaws.

I was encouraged to read that the farm bill contains “some good news” for organic growers, though. The Environmental Working Group highlighted a few other “bright spots.”

Most importantly, it reattaches conservation compliance provisions to crop insurance premium subsidies. This critical step-taken largely thanks to the leadership of Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and the good work of Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Jon Tester, D-Mont.-will safeguard the gains made since 1985 in protecting soil and wetlands.

The enactment of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program promises to move conservation programs in a far more effective direction. And thanks to the dedication of Sens. Stabenow and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Me., the conference report strengthens local and regional food systems.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread. Bill Tomson and Tarini Parti wrote a good analysis of “winners and losers” in the final farm bill deal.

Statement from Senator Tom Harkin, January 27:

January 27, 2014

Harkin Commends and Supports Farm Bill Conference Agreement

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), a farm bill conferee, today issued the following statement after the Senate-House conference committee reached an agreement on a new bill.  The bipartisan, bicameral agreement will help to reduce the federal budget deficit while strengthening the economy in rural areas and nationally, providing future certainty and income protection to the agricultural sector, conserving natural resources, promoting healthier nutrition, and boosting renewable energy.  The Agricultural Act of 2014 contains major reforms including eliminating the direct commodity payments program, streamlining and consolidating numerous programs to improve their effectiveness and reduce duplication, and cutting down on program misuse.  The proposal continues numerous reforms and progressive policies that were created, expanded, or strengthened in previous farm bills when Harkin was chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.  He is now a senior member of the Committee.

“This proposal is a sound, balanced, bipartisan bill.  It contains significant reforms, and extends and funds progressive elements that I was proud to include in previous farm bills.  Such elements include the promotion of local foods and better nutrition, the conservation of our natural resources, and investments in renewable energy and farm income protection.

“This agreement is not perfect and each side had to give a little.  For example, I had hoped the bill could do more for conservation, but recognize the limitations of this budget environment.  So too did conferees have to negotiate on support for modest food assistance.  I take solace in knowing that no one who needs this assistance will be kicked off the program.

“With this bipartisan agreement now ready, the U.S. House should take up and pass this measure as soon as possible and send it to the U.S. Senate for consideration.”  

Statement from Representative Bruce Braley (IA-01), January 29 (emphasis in original):

Braley on Farm Bill: Good news for Iowa Job Creation and the Strength of our Agriculture Economy

Washington, D.C. – Rep. Bruce Braley (IA-01) released the following statement today after a successful vote in the U.S. House on a long-term, comprehensive Farm Bill.

“The passage of the Farm Bill today represents the kind of bipartisan cooperation that Iowans are rightly demanding, and is good news for Iowa job creation and the strength of our agriculture economy,” Braley said. “It reduces our deficit by tens of billions of dollars and provides Iowa farmers the chance to plan responsibly for the next five years-something they’ve been unable to do for far too long.”

Over the past several months, Braley repeatedly urged House leadership to put the bipartisan Senate bill on the House Floor. The Senate passed a comprehensive, bipartisan Farm Bill in June.

Earlier this month, Braley asked Speaker John Boehner to postpone a Congressional recess until the House passed a long-term, bipartisan Farm Bill.

Statement from Representative Dave Loebsack (D, IA-02), January 29:

Loebsack Statement on the House Passage of the Farm Bill

Washington, D.C. – Congressman Dave Loebsack released the following statement after the House of Representatives passed a five-year, bipartisan farm bill.  Loebsack has been fighting for over two years to get a long term, comprehensive farm bill passed in order to give Iowa farmers and rural communities the stability they need. Loebsack led the fight to ensure the bill would include robust funding for the Energy Title, which gives farmers and rural small businesses the ability to continue to create jobs and grow the rural economy in a value-added and sustainable way. The bill now heads to the Senate for their consideration.

“This day is more than two years overdue. I am pleased that the Farm Bill finally got to this point, but the fact it took so long is another black eye for Congress. Farmers across Iowa and the nation have been waiting for this new legislation to provide the stability they need and deserve to be able to plant crops, raise livestock, and make investments that create jobs with certainty.

“While this legislation does take steps in the right direction, in the true form of compromise, not everyone got what they wanted. I am pleased that this farm bill includes a robust investment in the Energy Title so we can continue to create good jobs, provides strong crop insurance options, and found an agreeable path forward on SNAP assistance. This bill also contains other much needed reforms along with lowering the deficit.”

“I urge the Senate to take up this legislation quickly so it can be sent to the President and signed into law.”

Statement from Loebsack on January 28:

Loebsack Championed Issues Included in Farm Bill Conference Report

House, Senate reach agreement on long-term, bipartisan farm bill

Washington, D.C. – Congressman Dave Loebsack released the following statement today after House and Senate negotiators announced an agreement on a five-year, bipartisan, bicameral farm bill. Loebsack has been fighting to finish a long-term farm bill since the last one expired over two years ago. He also fought to ensure the bill would include robust funding for the Energy Title in the farm bill. The Farm Bill Conference Report contains important investments in programs to help farmers and rural small businesses be able to continue to create jobs and grow our rural economy in a value-added and sustainable way.

“While this legislation is long past due and does not contain everything I would have included, I am pleased that Congress finally came together and completed a long-term, bipartisan farm bill. This bill contains much needed reforms, lowers the deficit, and provides farmers and rural communities with the stability they need.

“I am proud that the farm bill contains important investments in energy projects that put people to work, create entrepreneurial opportunities, and generate new value-added opportunities for our farmers, rural small businesses, and communities, even though it didn’t included everything desired. I am also pleased that the negotiators were able to find an agreeable path forward on anti-hunger initiatives, known as SNAP, that closes loop-holes but also allows those who need assistance to receive it.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to make sure this legislation is fully implemented and provides the necessary support for our farmers, rural communities and economy.”

King’s press release of January 29 (emphasis in original):

King Votes for Final Farm Bill

Washington, DC – Congressman Steve King released the following statement after voting in favor of the Conference Report on H.R. 2642, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013:

“This has been a long time coming for a final Farm Bill to be completed,” said King. “I am pleased that we have produced a 5-year Farm Bill for the people of Iowa and all Americans so they can have the agriculture policy predictability they deserve. The Fourth District is one of the leading agricultural production districts in America and I look forward to this bill helping continue that growth.

However, I’ve had my reservations. The livestock industry was not treated right by Senate Democrats and I resolve to bring those issues to a proper conclusion.

This was a good, bi-partisan effort and I am grateful for the hard work and efforts of Chairman Frank Lucas and my fellow Agriculture Committee Members. I was honored to be a voice at the table for Iowans throughout this process and I will continue my work to support sound agriculture policy moving forward.”

Statement from Jim Mowrer, King’s Democratic challenger in IA-04:

“It’s about time the House passed a farm bill.  It’s what Iowa farmers and families deserve.  The problem is, it took far too long to get done. While Iowa families did their jobs, Steve King voted to shut down the government instead of doing his own.  Then he held up the passage of this bill all by himself.  Iowa families deserve someone in congress who puts them first and isn’t afraid to work with others to make things happen.”

LATE UPDATE: Representative Tom Latham’s office released this statement:

Washington, DC – Iowa’s Third District Congressman Tom Latham released his floor statement regarding the bipartisan Farm Bill reauthorizing the nation’s agriculture and nutrition programs following passage of the measure in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday.

The statement reads:

“Mr. Speaker, I rise today to commend the House on the passage of a new farm bill.  I know that the Chairman, the Ranking Member and many other members of this body have worked diligently for a very long period of time to reach this point.   I am glad that this body has finally passed legislation that can bring some certainty to Iowa producers and allow them to plan for their economic futures.  While I know that we would all agree that this process has taken far too long, I appreciate the endless hours of work to bring us to this significant accomplishment.  I trust the legislation will soon make it to the President’s desk.

However, no farm bill is perfect and I would be remiss if I did not point out that this bill does not address all of the serious issues of concern to the agricultural community.  Congress must address the serious issues related to Country of Origin Labeling in the meat industry.  Our livestock producers are quite appropriately concerned that they may face trade retaliation from some of our closest trading partners if these issues are not properly addressed.  There are also legitimate concerns regarding USDA’s ability to write regulations related to the buying and selling of livestock, which are not addressed in this farm bill. While I am very pleased with what has been accomplished here today,  I urge my colleagues to join me in making sure that we complete the work on those issues which were not included in today’s legislation.  Thank you, Mr. Speaker.”

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