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Stabenow: Farm bill headed for Senate floor

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said today she expects the farm bill to come up on the Senate floor this week, and that if another senator or senators insist on a vote on whether to proceed, she has the 60 votes to move forward.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
“If we do a cloture vote on motion to proceed, we are looking at two weeks or three weeks [on the floor],” Stabenow said. Noting that she got the bill through committee in a record of four-and-a-half hours, she said she would “would love” to repeat the same pace on the Senate floor, but realizes that is unlikely.

“We start from the premise that the farm bill is a jobs bill,” Stabenow said in a telephone call to reporters, noting that she doesn’t know many bills that affect jobs as much.

Agriculture, she said, “has been a bright spot in our economy. That is the reason we want to move forward as quickly as possible. We want to keep it that way.”

Senate sources said the bill could come up as early as Tuesday, with a cloture vote as early as Wednesday.

Stabenow repeated her frequent statements that the bill provides many reforms, including the elimination of the direct payments program, and said it is supported by more than 125 farm and healthy eating groups and almost 650 conservation groups.

All together, she said, more than 100 programs have been eliminated and the remaining programs will be easier to use.

Stabenow intensified her arguments that the new Agriculture Risk Coverage or ARC program that covers some of the revenue losses not covered by crop insurance will be fair to all commodities. Rice and peanut growers have said the ARC program will not work for them and have said they want a target price-based program, but Stabenow was insistent that the revenue-based program will be better for southern crops than predicted.

Stabenow said recent studies have supported the view that the new program would provide more support to farmers in a period of low prices than the programs that were in place in the late 1990s, when there were several years of low prices and that one study showed that the new program would work better for rice.

Stabenow did not name the studies, but the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri and Carl Zulauf, a professor at The Ohio State University, have released studies within the last two weeks.

No changes have been made to rice and peanut programs, she said, though negotiations with those groups are continuing. She added that rice growers asked her last week to continue current programs, but that “the conversation” is now about working within the ARC program.

Stabenow said that the new bill would not attempt to give each commodity a certain percentage of the baseline.

“Our goal is not to guarantee groups the same amount of support they got in the last farm bill, but that they get help,” she said. “It is a different system, it is not based on guaranteed taxpayer dollars.”

But, as she pointed out, “It is common knowledge there is a different approach in the House.”

Stabenow said she has a “great relationship” with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who is planning to propose a target price system. “We will work that out in conference committee,” she said.

Stabenow dismissed a study released by the American Enterprise Institute that said the ARC program could cost more than the direct payments that are being eliminated on the grounds that the Congressional Budget Office has concluded the program approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee would save $15 billion over 10 years.

Those cuts, she noted, are higher than what the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission and the “gang of six” senators proposed, and would be more than the cut required if sequestration proceeds under current law.

Stabenow also said she will oppose any proposals to tie crop insurance to conservation compliance. She said farmers have to comply with conservation standards in order to qualify for commodity programs and noted that there is a “sodsaver” provisions that restricts insurance on native prairie that is broken up for crop production.

Discussing the impact of early high temperatures in Michigan this year and a later freeze that has severely damaged the cherry crop, Stabenow said she wished the new bill had been in place because tart cherries do not have crop insurance and the bill would direct the creation of more crop insurance programs for fruit and vegetables.

Stabenow defended a provision that would eliminate a $4.5 billion cut in supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits, better known as SNAP or food stamps, by cutting crop insurance subsidies, use some of that money for other nutrition programs and result in a $4 billion cut overall in nutrition.

She emphasized the need for accountability in the SNAP program and noted that it would eliminate the possibility that lottery winners would still get food stamps, make it tougher for college students who live at home to get them and makes it impossible for states to pay as little as $1 in heating benefits so that residents can qualify for higher SNAP benefits.

Stabenow said the Senate farm bill will not change the benefit structure of the food stamp program, although the bill does make changes to tighten up on a provision under which some states have been providing a small heating allowance that has allowed beneficiaries to qualify for a higher level of food stamp benefits.

“We are not doing anything that affects the benefit structure," Stabenow said.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., announced Monday that she will bring up an amendment that would eliminate the “heat and eat” food stamp cut and also put more money into a fruit and vegetable program by cutting crop insurance subsidies.

The Gillibrand amendment strikes the $4.5 billion cut to SNAP benefits and adds $500 million to the fresh fruit and vegetable program. It offsets these costs by lowering the cap for USDA reimbursements to insurance companies from $1.3 billion to $825 million per year and lowering guaranteed profits to insurance companies from 14 percent to 12 percent.

Gillibrand said the CBO estimates that the proposed food stamp cuts would result in an average benefit cut of $90 per month, or 32 percent , for nearly a half a million households. She also said that the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance has said the cut would affect 190,000 low-income New York City households and nearly 300,00 households statewide.

Stabenow said she believes the committee-passed bill has “struck a very delicate balance” and added, “We will have to see whether or not the senator proceeds with a vote. It is very important to keep that balance so it is fair to all sides.”

Stabenow said she does not plan a manager’s amendment because there have been objections to them in the Senate. Instead, she said, she believes there will be a series of individual measures added by unanimous consent.

She said she is prepared for all kinds of amendments.

“This is the Senate,” she said. “We expect we could have a lot of different kinds of amendments. We are working through amendments with our Democratic colleagues, we are waiting to hear from our Republican colleagues.”

“Amendments to Senate bills don’t have to be germane,” she noted. “We could see outliers coming forward. We will negotiate with the leadership for time. If someone is trying to obstruct and not let the bill move forward, we’ll deal with that.”