Obama Supports Senate Farm Bill, But Urges More Cuts in Crop Insurance Spending

May 21, 2013 03:31 AM

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Supports end of direct payments, streamlining conservation programs, and funding for bioenergy programs

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Farm bill proponents wanting to protect what they term the most effective safety net around, crop insurance, were dealt a reality blow when the Obama administration said that while it supported the Senate farm bill now in debate on the Senate floor, it wanted to see deeper cuts in crop insurance and commodity subsidies. President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget proposals call for trimming back on the premium subsidies between 3 to 5 percentage points depending on the nature of the policy for a net savings about $7 billion over 10 years.

The White House said in a statement that it supports the end of direct payments, the streamlining of conservation programs, funding for bioenergy programs and a provision that would link conservation compliance to crop insurance.. But it noted that subsidy cuts in the Senate bill were not as deep as President Barack Obama would like, and that proposed reductions in spending for the food stamp program were too severe.

"The Administration looks forward to working with the Congress to achieve crop insurance and commodity program savings that are not contained in S 954, while at the same time strengthening the farm safety net in times of need and supporting the next generation of farmers," the White House said.

Big Senate-House food stamp cut difference. The Senate Agriculture Committee bill, which the full chamber started debating this week, is seeking a reduction of just over $4 billion in food stamps compared to $20.5 billion in the House proposal.

"The Administration also strongly supports the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a cornerstone of our Nation’s food assistance safety net, which is why it was not subject to cuts in the President’s budget," the administration said.

Meanwhile, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack repeated his concerns about the House farm bill. In a separate statement (link), Vilsack said he was "deeply concerned" about parts of the House farm bill " including significant cuts that would deny struggling families and their children access to food assistance."

Tobacco and crop insurance subject of coming amendment. During Monday's initial farm bill debate on the Senate floor, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) offered an amendment to eliminate crop insurance for tobacco farmers (link to separate article). In support of the amendment, McCain said the nation has spent $276 million in crop insurance subsidies in addition to the $10 billion payout that the federal government has given tobacco farmers for halting tobacco cultivation. "Joe Camel's nose has been in the tent all this time," McCain said, adding that he believes it is time to put a stop to this type of funding.

But Senate Ag Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told McCain that she was unwilling to jeopardize the agreement reached on crop insurance by eliminating or limiting the amount that already has been adopted in the bill. She reiterated the significance of "the historic new agreement" reached between 44 commodity producers and environmental groups that resulted in the language linking crop insurance to conservation compliance in exchange for dropping all demands for other reforms to the crop insurance program.

"When we look at overall crop insurance, less than 1 percent of that whole program is something that in anyway covers tobacco. The larger question for all of us is, are we going to make a commitment to a create a number-one risk management tool for them?" Stabenow said.

Several senators have already indicated they are working on proposed amendments which if offered and approved would be significant changes to the underlying $995 billion Senate farm bill, including:

* Sugar: A proposal by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) to ease restrictions on domestic sugar production and reduce price supports.

* GMO crops under legal challenge: A possible amendment by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) to repeal a policy provision in the Fiscal 2013 continuing resolution that authorizes USDA to allow farmers to continue to plant and harvest genetically modified crops under legal challenge until a court issues a final ruling. Vilsack has stated that the provision was unnecessary because he already had such authority. Merkley said the provision was "quietly and anonymously inserted" into the budget legislation to avoid public scrutiny. In a 2012 letter to members of the House Appropriations Committee, a coalition of industry trade groups urged lawmakers to adopt the provision as a defense against frivolous lawsuits designed to undermine science-based research. "As we understand it, the point of the Farmer Assurance Provision is to strike a careful balance allowing farmers to continue to plant and cultivate their crops subject to appropriate environmental safeguards, while USDA conducts any necessary further environmental reviews," Monsanto said in a statement issued after the continuing resolution’s passage in March.

* Food stamps: Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) may offer amendments to make larger reductions to SNAP. A possible amendment might center on further changes to the heating allowance provisions that allow states to increase benefits for eligible SNAP recipients through minimal utility payments. The Senate farm bill would require states to provide at least $10 in such payments, while the House bill proposes a $20 threshold. The amendment would restrict categorical eligibility, end states' use of heating subsidies increase SNAP benefits, and cut grants for training and nutrition education.

* Food stamps: Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has proposed amendments that would require verification of immigration status to qualify for SNAP benefits and end a USDA partnership with Mexico for promoting US nutrition assistance.

* Food stamps: Sen .Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is proposing to cut crop insurance spending to restore the $4 billion cut the bill would make in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Another Gillibrand amendment would require automatic reviews of large insurance claims.

* Crop insurance: Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) may repeat their amendment to reduce premium subsidies to farmers with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000. The Senate adopted the provision in 2012. Also, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) will offer an amendment to eliminate crop insurance for tobacco farmers.

* Crop insurance: Amendment by Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) to require USDA to release the names of insurance policyholders and the amount of benefits they receive. Payments to insurance companies also would be disclosed. Such disclosure is now limited to commodity programs.

* Crop insurance: An amendment filed by Sheehan would cap premium subsidies at $50,000.

* Legalize hemp: Merkley is co-sponsoring an amendment sponsored by fellow Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden to legalize the production of industrial hemp. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky also signed onto the amendment along with fellow Kentucky Republican Rand Paul. The measure would revise the Controlled Substances Act to exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana.

Comments: Monday debate saw more action than most expected, but no actual votes on amendments, which are still being put together. Those amendments will cover a host of thorny issues, including crop insurance, food stamp funding and sugar policy, among other topics – so many that most observers now expect the farm bill debate will not be completed before the Memorial Day recess, despite continued hope from the farm bill managers to meet that timeline. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the farm bill would spend $955 billion over 10 years, but will provide $18 billion in savings over the next decade . The bill claims an additional $6.4 billion in sequester savings, and the deficit reduction figure is lower than the $23 billion in 2012 due to a smaller baseline. Link to article on Senate farm bill update. Meanwhile, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said the House farm bill cuts to food stamps, which total $20.5 billion, could not pass in the Senate. "‘We shouldn’t be cutting federal nutrition programs,’ Brown said Monday. ‘[The Senate] bill cuts $4 billion from SNAP and that’s already $4 billion too much. … The House’s $20.5 billion in SNAP cuts won’t pass muster in the Senate and certainly won’t get my support."


NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.






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