Tucked deep in the 1,198-page U.S. House agriculture policy legislation is an initiative to guarantee prices for sushi rice. So too is insurance for alfalfa and a marketing plan for Christmas trees.
Catfish farmers also get a morsel in the proposal being taken up this week: Profit-margin insurance. The products represent a tiny fraction of the $440 billion U.S. farm economy. Yet each is slated to receive special treatment -- either through subsidized insurance, promotional programs or protections against imports -- in the bill that carries an estimated 10-year price tag of $939 billion.
“We’re in a golden age of agriculture,” with producer profits projected at a record $128.2 billion this year, Vince Smith, a professor of agricultural economics at Montana State University, said at a briefing on Capitol Hill last week. The House bill “is about as bad a bill as I could think of writing as an economist,” he said.
The farm bill, which benefits crop-buyers such as Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., grocers including Supervalu Inc. and insurers including Wells Fargo & Co. and Ace Ltd, has been working through Congress for almost two years. The Senate last week passed a version that would spend $955 billion over 10 years; the House this week is considering a version approved by its agriculture committee. The current, five-year authorization of U.S. Department of Agriculture programs passed in 2008 and was extended last year until Sept. 30.
Both the Senate and House versions would reduce payments to growers of corn, wheat and other crops by eliminating a $5 billion-a-year program of direct subsidies while expanding subsidized crop insurance. Their different price tags mainly result from variations in food-stamp spending. The Senate plan would reduce payments by $4 billion over a decade, about one- fifth the House amount.
The House Rules Committee will meet later today to set guidelines for amendments and debate on the bill, potentially complicating or smoothing the path to passage.
Assembling a bill popular enough to pass Congress becomes a complex process of tradeoffs among different groups. Growers of cotton, peanuts and other crops common in Southern states dissatisfied with a bill before the Senate last year got programs tailored to their needs in this year’s version, increasing its vote margin in that chamber and potentially adding votes in the House.
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