Farm bill with $8.6 billion in food-stamp cuts passes U.S. House

January 29, 2014 05:33 AM

The U.S. House passed and sent to the Senate a much-delayed bill to set agricultural policy for the next five years, as a coalition of rural Republicans and urban Democrats overcame objections about farm subsidies and food-stamp cuts.

The Republican-led House voted 251-166 for the so-called farm bill, which would cost $956.4 billion over a decade. Senators predicted passage in that chamber as soon as next week, ending a tortured journey for a typically routine measure that was rejected by House Republicans last year in defiance of their leader, Speaker John Boehner.

The plan, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will cut spending by $16.6 billion over 10 years from current levels, reflects the clout of rural and urban allies who succeeded in keeping farm subsidies and nutrition programs together over Republican objections. Supporters said the bipartisan bill showed political differences can be bridged. Opponents said the bill was rushed to a vote to avoid criticism about its cost.

“Many criticize us and this body for being dysfunctional,” Republican Representative Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the House Agriculture Committee chairman who led negotiations on a final package, said on the floor before the vote. “I hope this reflects a change in how we do our business here across the board.”

The legislation governing U.S. Department of Agriculture programs emerged after more than two years of debate, with some lawmakers seeking to use the measure to curb spending and end subsidy programs. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid yesterday predicted the plan, a compromise between competing versions passed by the two chambers, will pass the Senate which could take up the measure as soon as this week.

Bunge, Ace

The bill governs farm subsidies, which encourages planting of soybeans, cotton and other crops by lowering costs for commodity processors including Bunge Ltd. The legislation subsidizes crop-insurance provided by companies such as Ace Ltd. and funds purchases at Kroger Co. and other grocers with food stamps, its biggest cost.

The legislation would cut food-stamp spending by $8.6 billion over 10 years, though additions to other programs bring nutrition-aid cuts down to $8 billion -- one-fifth of the $40 billion sought by Republicans and fought by Democrats and food retailers.

Total savings would be $23 billion over 10 years, higher than the budget-office estimate, after automatic cuts in all federal spending tied to an earlier budget deal are included, according to agriculture committee staff.

Crop-growers facing loss of $50 billion in subsidies retained about two-thirds of it through other aid, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Conservation initiatives would lose $6 billion, largely through consolidation of existing programs. Crop insurers that paid out $17 billion after the severe 2012 were largely unscathed.

The bill ends the possibility, for at least five years, of U.S. farm policies reverting to a 1949 law that would potentially double milk prices.

Lobbying Efforts

Final passage in the Senate would bring to an end the agriculture community’s toughest legislative fight in almost two decades.

At least 325 companies and organizations, including Monsanto Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Dean Foods Co., registered as lobbyists in 2013 to work on the Senate bill through the end of October -- the fifth-most of any legislation, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Only bills on the federal budget, appropriations, immigration and defense generated more lobbying interest, according to the center, a Washington-based research group that tracks campaign donations.

Agribusiness, an industry of crop and livestock producers, food manufacturers and dairy farmers among others, spent $111.5 million on lobbying in the same period, more than the defense industry and labor unions, according to the center.

Companies and individuals in agriculture made about $93 million in campaign donations during the 2012 presidential campaign and have given $20 million so far in 2014 congressional races.

Bipartisan Success

The farm-policy legislation is among the few bipartisan achievements of this Congress, which this month cleared a $1.1 trillion spending bill and overcame disputes on presidential nominees to confirm more than a dozen.

Opponents said that, after debate dating to budget negotiations in late 2011, the bill’s passage has come too quickly to examine the legislation that is more about political clout than sound policy.

“Many would like this whole farm bill issue to go away,” said Representative James McGovern of Massachusetts, a Democrat who voted against the bill, before the floor vote. Still, “the people who will be hurt by this bill won’t go away,” he said. “This bill will make hunger worse in America, not better.”

Club for Growth and Heritage Action, which back smaller government and lower taxes, both alerted lawmakers they would include the vote on scorecards used to evaluate congressional candidates, encouraging them to vote against the plan.

“The ‘farm’ bill means more expenses for taxpayers and higher costs for consumers,” Heritage Action said in its release yesterday designating the bill a “key vote.” “It means more unnecessary government dependence for wealthy farmers and food stamp recipients.” 

The bill is H.R. 2642

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