Friday, January 04, 2008

Senate Passes Farm Bill; Now Conference Committee

Dec 14: Mid-afternoon on December 14, 2007, as WIMS was beginning our holiday break, the U.S. Senate passed its version of H.R. 2419, the Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act of 2007, with a bipartisan vote of 79-14 with 7 members not voting. The U.S. House of Representatives passed its hotly contested version of the Farm Bill by a largely party-line vote of 231-191, on July 27, 2007 [See WIMS 7/30/07]. The differences will now be resolved in a Conference Committee. According to a release from Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, the measure continues and improves farm income protection and makes historic investments for the future in energy, conservation, nutrition and rural development initiatives -- all while staying within strict budget limits.

Senator Harkin said, “This is a strong, bipartisan bill -- evident by the fact that it passed Committee after only one day of deliberation with no negative votes voiced against it and passed the Senate today by an overwhelming majority. After months of negotiations, we were able to work within a very strict budget allocation to complete our work and pass a farm bill that is good for agriculture, good for rural areas and good for the health of Americans. This is a forward-looking farm bill with greatly strengthened initiatives to support renewable energy, conservation, nutrition, rural development and to promote better diets and health for all Americans. It maintains a strong safety net for farm producers, and strengthens programs that will help agricultural producers of all kinds across our nation. I thank all Committee members for their cooperation and support in getting this bill passed and join them in looking forward to a swift conference with the House.”

Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Ranking Republican Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee also praised the passage of the bill and said it includes the most significant reforms to payment limitations in the history of American farm policy, as well as increased funding for nutrition, energy and conservation programs. Senator Chambliss, who coauthored the bill said, “Passage of the farm bill is a real victory for American agriculture. The legislation will strengthen the nation’s food security, protect the livelihood of our farmers and ranchers, preserve our efforts to remain good stewards of the environment, and enhance our nation’s energy security efforts. I consider a safe, affordable and abundant food supply a critical national security interest and this bill takes us in the right direction to ensure those priorities.”

Despite the bipartisan Senate support for the bill, the Administration expressed displeasure with the bill and called it "fundamentally flawed." Acting USDA Secretary Chuck Conner issued a statement saying, "Farmers and ranchers face enormous uncertainties and deserve a safety net, and I am a firm believer in federal support of agriculture. Yet, the farm bill just passed by the Senate fails to strengthen the safety net and increases taxes to generate $15 billion in revenue used to grow the size and scope of government. The bill further increases price supports and continues to send farm subsidies to people who are among the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. The Senate-passed farm bill does not represent fiscal stewardship and lacks farm program reform.

"This legislation is fundamentally flawed. Unless the House and Senate can come together and craft a measure that contains real reform, we are no closer to a good farm bill than we were before today's passage. Farmers need a stable safety net that helps in years they need it most. And farmers deserve a farm bill that is free of budget smoke and mirrors and tax increases. The measure passed today has $22 billion in unfunded commitments and budget gimmicks, and includes $15 billion in new taxes -- the first time a farm bill has relied on tax increases since 1933.

"The House and Senate need to address the concerns that matter to farmers the most. We have heard from farmers all across America in over 50 Farm Bill Forums since 2005, and most have made it clear that there must be an end to income subsidy payments for the richest people in the country. Farmers understand that a program that takes tax dollars from middle income America and transfers those dollars to the nation's wealthiest few is bad policy, and damages the credibility and the purpose of farm programs. As the House and Senate work to come to a consensus on their different bills, it is imperative that substantial changes are made to this legislation. I am eager to work with Congress on ways to make this a good farm bill that benefits our rural communities and America's farmers."

According to Senator Harkin's release, the bill includes a newly named Producer Income Protection title of that continues basic features of the 2002 bill, which have worked well, and it gives producers a new option, beginning with the 2010 crop year, to choose to participate in a state-level revenue protection system. The Average Crop Revenue program, modeled after legislation introduced by Senators Durbin and Brown, offers producers better options for managing risk on their farms in today’s uncertain, rapidly changing farm environment.

The conservation title extends key conservation programs and increases critical funding. This will allow CSP – now renamed the Conservation Stewardship Program -- to grow vigorously at a pace of more than 13 million acres a year, which with the 15 million acres already enrolled, will equal 80 million acres in 5 years. This funding will also continue to allow increased enrollment in the Wetland Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Grassland Reserve Program.

The energy title provides investments in farm-based energy by creating initiatives with financial incentives to help farmers transition into biomass crops, and supports the construction of biorefineries from cellulose ethanol with a loan guarantee program that will provide up to 80 percent of total project cost with a loan cap of $250 million. The bill expands markets for biobased products, and invests in farm-based energy R&D, and in helping farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses move to renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Harkin also indicated that the nutrition title strengthens our commitment to fighting hunger and promoting sound health and nutrition; the livestock title will promote market opportunities for producers, protect animal health, strengthen enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act; the rural development title provides $400 million in budget authority for a variety of initiatives that will promote economic growth and create jobs in rural communities; the bill greatly increases assistance to growers of fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops; and it contains a full reauthorization of the Commodity Exchange Act until 2013.

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF), one of the few environmental organizations to comment on the passage said it was pleased to see the Senate pass the Farm bill and hoped for a speedy conference with the House of Representatives. NWF said,“The Senate Farm Bill is a mixed bag for wildlife. We are disappointed that critical programs like the Grassland Reserve Program would see a cut from the 2002 Farm Bill levels -- not even factoring in inflation. We are pleased that the bill makes important strides in streamlining, focusing and adequately funding the Conservation Security Program.

“But clearly we have a lot of work to do in the conference. Farm Bill conservation programs provide wildlife habitat on over 40 million acres of land across the United States, and we cannot afford to retreat from investments in conservation that benefit farmers, ranchers, wildlife, and rural communities. Included in this overall package was the Endangered Species Recovery Act, which provides tens of millions of dollars in incentives for private landowners to conserve endangered species. The Senate’s enactment of this bill, which was introduced as S. 700 earlier this year by Senators Crapo (R-ID), Lincoln (D-AR), Baucus (D-MT), and Grassley (R-IA), represents an exciting step forward for endangered species conservation.”

Access links to releases, video and related information from Senators Harkin and Chambliss (
click here). Access links to the Senate-passed version and the amendment list (click here). Access details of the Senate roll call vote (click here). Access legislative details for H.R. 2419 (click here). Access the statement from Secretary Conner (click here). Access the statement from NWF (click here). [*All, *Agriculture]