Senate Farm Bill Debate Continues, With a Likely Post-Memorial Day Conclusion

May 22, 2013 03:31 AM

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A host of controversial amendments proposed for Senate farm bill debate

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It was slow going for the farm bill during Tuesday debate. Attempts to increase and decrease the proposed $4.1 billion cuts to food stamp funding were soundly defeated. A host of amendments await debate and possible votes, with key sources signaling the final vote on the bill will likely take place after lawmakers return from their Memorial Day recess. Most expect the Senate farm bill to look similar to the measure passed May 14 by the Agriculture Committee. The Senate on Tuesday voted 87-8 to accept an amendment introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). Her amendment would allow Indian tribes to participate in soil and water conservation programs. The Senate also approved on voice vote Sen. Jeff Sessions' (R-Ala.) amendment, which aims to clarify the eligibility criteria for those who qualify for agriculture irrigation assistance. Last year’s Senate farm bill passed on a bipartisan 64-35 vote, but the House failed to take up their own farm bill.

139 amendments thus far filed for Senate farm bill debate. The topics are widespread in scope, with some of them on the Renewable Fuel Standard and EPA – both topics Senate Ag Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has indicated would be non-germane to the underlying bill. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) will offer an amendment to set uniform national standards for housing laying hens. The United Egg Producers was unable to get the standards added to the farm bill in committee. While Stabenow supports the standards, she has said the amendment would also be considered non-germane on the floor. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has filed an amendment to reduce premium subsidies for high-earning farmers, with the cut contingent on a USDA study of its impact on the insurance program. The amendment is similar to one that the Senate adopted 66-33 last year. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has proposed at several amendments targeting the crop insurance program, including one that would allow USDA to achieve "significant savings" by renegotiating the Standard Reinsurance Agreement (SRA). Another would prohibit harvest-price coverage. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) has proposed to require public disclosure of the names of policyholders and the assistance they receive. Supporters of the requirement are holding a news conference today to promote it.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group has posted data on commodity payments, conservation benefits and premium subsidies in 2012. Last year, USDA paid out $14.9 billion to 1.2 million recipients. Texas, Iowa and Illinois together claimed nearly 25 percent of the money.

Other amendment topics include:

  • Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has proposed to allow states to opt out of the RFS. A Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) amendment would require the annual advanced and renewable fuel targets to be lowered commensurate with reductions in the cellulosic mandate.

  • Biotech crops. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, wants to ensures states are allowed to require labeling of foods with GMO ingredients. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has proposed to require a report on GMO labeling in other countries. Another Boxer amendment is a sense-of-the-Senate statement supporting GMO labeling.

  • Livestock, dairy and meat industry concentration. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wants a special counsel at USDA to address market competition issues. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) has proposed to require USDA to report annually on consolidation in meat, grains and dairy. An amendment by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) would protect livestock and poultry growers from retaliation by packers and contractors.

  • Crop insurance. Sen. Hagan will offer an amendment that would target fraud and abuse in the crop insurance program. She said the proposed Senate farm bill already had saved $4 billion from eliminating fraud and abuse in SNAP. She also said she would offer an amendment that would require USDA to explain federal crop insurance policies in "plain language" that farmers can understand without the need of an attorney. Plain language legislation was included in the Senate's 2012 farm bill, which did not go to the House floor.

  • Ban on EPA discharge permits. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) is planning to file to the farm bill an amendment that would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from requiring Clean Water Act discharge permits for pesticide spraying near or on waters. The language would amend the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act and the Clean Water Act to bar EPA and state environmental agencies from requiring a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for pesticides on or near waters that are already registered for use under FIFRA. During a May 21 teleconference, Hagan said the Clean Water Act amendment is aimed at eliminating "redundant regulation." During last week's Senate Ag panel markup of the farm bill, Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) that a similar amendment he wanted to offer was not germane.

  • Textile plans and manufacturing equipment. Hagan also plans to offer an Economic Adjustment Assistance Program amendment that would stimulate new investment in textile plants and manufacturing equipment that would lead to greater use of domestically grown cotton.

  • Adverse Market Payments for peanuts. Hagan said she is debating whether to offer an amendment that would remove the price set for peanuts under the newly created Adverse Market Payments program in the Senate farm bill. She said the target price for peanuts in the farm bill would be unfair to North Carolina peanut farmers, because peanuts cost more to grow for direct consumption as opposed to their use in products like peanut butter. The AMP program, as written in the Senate bill, would pay farmers when prices of commodity crops drop below a reference price, which is based on historic base acres. In particular, the AMP program would pay peanut growers if prices fall below $523.77 per ton. Hagan said she is talking with peanut farmers in North Carolina to determine whether she should propose an amendment to oppose the AMP legislation.


Sugar policy proponents want status quo for Senate farm bill. North Dakota Sens. John Hoeven (R) and Heidi Heitkamp (D) warned their colleagues not to support a farm bill amendment that would change subsidies for sugar farmers. The sugar program "is critical to the compromise of the farm bill itself," Heitkamp said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "Let the bill stay intact." Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) introduced an amendment on Monday that would reform subsidies for sugar farmers. Hoeven and Heitkamp argued that because most other countries also subsidize their sugar production, US farmers would be driven out of business because they wouldn’t be able to compete without the subsidies. "We can compete if the playing field is level, but it is not level in sugar," Heitkamp said. "Other countries have subsidized their sugar for years." Hoeven said there would be "extreme volatility in the global sugar market" if the US ended its sugar subsidy program, which is included in the Senate farm measure. A similar amendment to end sugar subsidies failed last year, getting 46 votes.

Catfish inspection issue part of Senate farm bill debate. The 2008 Farm Bill directs USDA to build a program to inspect catfish, even though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) already reviews the fish. The new USDA program is expected to cost $14 million a year to operate. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) will offer an amendment to the farm bill to repeal the USDA program, calling the directive a waste of money. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) study of the USDA program found that it would result in "duplication of effort and cost," and it recommends that inspections be left to the FDA. Shaheen and McCain introduced legislation to end the program in March, and Reps. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) introduced a similar bill in the House.

Comments: Do not get fooled by proposed amendments and those actually debated and voted on. Many amendments never are called up for debate. Some of the more controversial ones will either be defeated or determined non-germane. There could of course be some surprise votes on the Senate floor -- after all, this is a farm bill debate.


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






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