UPDATED Are Vilsack, Stabenow Overreaching on Food Safety, Farm Bill Issues?

06:46AM Feb 15, 2013
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via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

What would farm safety net be for 2013 crops if Stabenow gets her way?

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Some observers believe USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Senate Ag Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) are toeing their political party line a bit too much when it comes to budget-related food safety issues (Vilsack) and budget-related farm bill issues (Stabenow).

Vilsack has warned that across-the-board furloughs are likely in the meat inspection area should the March 1 sequester go forth. Some say he has flexibility but is touting the White House line to put pressure on Republicans to offset the coming $85 billion in cuts.

Stabenow has provided some details of the farm spending provisions in the Democratic plan to avert the budget sequester. The plan would save a net $27.5 billion over 10 years by eliminating direct payments to farmers while reviving expired disaster assistance programs and other programs left unfunded by this year’s farm bill extension – at a cost of $3.5 billion in new spending. Were the plan to pass, Stabenow says, her committee would not be required to make any additional cuts to fund a new farm bill. But observers question her conclusion, even though Stabenow sources say she got a "pledge" that the savings could be used for the new farm bill debate.

Of note, Stabenow said that she had not discussed the specifics of the sequester replacement plan with Senate Republican colleagues or Lucas and his ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota.

But House Ag Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) sees the farm bill issue far differently. "Farmers and ranchers want to be a part of the solution to the fiscal crisis we face in this country," Lucas said in a statement. "And, the House Agriculture Committee demonstrated that commitment to being a part of the solution when we passed a comprehensive, balanced farm bill that cut more than $35 billion from all of agricultural spending, including the farm safety net, conservation programs, and reforming the SNAP program. We made those reforms in the context of a comprehensive, five-year farm bill that ensured we still met the food and fiber needs of all Americans. The Senate’s approach of taking away our investment in rural America without addressing the hole it will create is not balanced and not acceptable."

The Senate Agriculture's ranking Republican, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, called the Democratic plan a "political messaging bill" and said the proposed cuts fall "squarely on the backs of our defense and agriculture sectors." Two other Republicans on Senate Agriculture, John Thune of South Dakota and John Boozman of Arkansas, also said they were uneasy about the proposal. "If they start taking dollars out of farm programs, it makes it that much harder I think to get a farm bill passed," said Thune.

Comments: What Stabenow now needs to address is if the Democratic plan goes through (which it will not), then what is the farm safety net for 2013 crops because Congress has shown no fast-pace when it comes to getting a new farm bill past the goal line. But the key relative to the farm bill issue is that Stabenow is delinking the direct payment issue from the farm bill debate. She says she has a pledge that any such elimination of direct payments would also count towards farm bill savings. Others say prove it. Democratic senators from states which rely on direct payments will likely be nervous about Stabenow's approach. If you delink the direct payment budget savings from the farm bill debate, where would the money come from to "reform" Title 1 farm safety net programs? From food stamp funding? No chance. From conservation program cuts? No chance. Stabenow comes from a state that doesn't rely that much on direct payments. Besides, a pledge in this Congress with the acerbic atmosphere between the political parties means very little. The only pledge that counts, or should count, in our nation's capital is the Pledge of Allegiance, not a lemming-like allegiance to a political party's stance on an issue.

Update. Some sources say it is their understanding that the direct payment elimination would only be effective with the 2014 crop, or at least that’s how the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reportedly scored it. One source said, "The proposal is in many ways analogous to the sequester avoidance bill that passed the House last year with large SNAP cuts — its main objective is to allow Senate Democrats to say they tried to take action to avoid the sequester, only to be thwarted by the other side."

My comments regarding the above analysis:

  1. Stabenow kept key farm-state leaders from both parties in the dark.

  2. Stabenow made a mistake in separating eliminating direct payments from the direct farm bill debate.

  1. If it starts with 2014, she should say that – transparency is touted by the Obama administration and Democratic lawmakers, but it is found wanting in more than a few examples. Also, note Rep. Lucas' comment.

  1. What CBO assumes and what reality is sometimes are two different things.

  2. When House Republicans slashed food stamp funding in their budget proposal they also made a mistake. They simply should have directed x-billions of dollars of cuts in a new farm bill and let the Ag panels decide.

  3. Political posturing by either political party is not fooling any seasoned observer.



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