Early Thursday afternoon, the Senate passed its version of the farm bill on a 65-34 vote. The five-year bill is expected to cost $970 billion, although lawmakers made some $24 billion in cuts to programs.
“This farm bill is the most significant reform to farm programs in decades -- it cuts spending, ends subsidies, improves accountability and strengthens healthy food systems,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “This bill was developed through bipartisan collaboration, passed committee with broad bipartisan support, and we have now passed a bipartisan bill that supports 16 million American jobs. It is heartening to earn support from both sides on a major bill that cuts spending and helps create jobs. Passage of this bill shows that when people come together Congress can still get big things done.”
The Senate will now await fresh action on the House farm bill, which will be taken up by the House Agriculture Committee on July 11. In recent days it was thought the House committee would begin its farm bill work sooner but Republican leadership pushed the start-up date to mid-July.
The delay comes despite the enthusiasm of Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee House Majority Leader, to push forward with the farm bill come “hell or high water.” However, Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, has yet to list the farm bill for action on the House floor and has been quoted saying he wants to “push the pause button.”
Following Thursday’s Senate vote, Lucas said: "Although there will be differences between the Senate approach and our own, I hope my colleagues are encouraged by this success when we meet on (July 11) to consider our own legislation. The House Agriculture Committee will consider a balanced proposal that saves taxpayers billions of dollars, recognizes the diversity of American agriculture, respects the risks producers face, and preserves the tools necessary for food production."
“I’m not on board with everything (Senate leadership has) done but think that we’ll be able to work out our differences in conference committee,” said Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee. “It is crucial that we finish the farm bill before the current bill expires in September. Waiting until the mess that will occur during the lame duck session will not only make it more difficult, but could also result in several unintended consequences. If the House Ag Committee passes a bipartisan bill in early July, House leadership will then have little choice but to bring the farm bill to the floor before the August recess.”
A pleased Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said “I am grateful for the Senate’s progress toward providing a reformed safety net for producers in times of need, supporting agricultural research and trade promotion, honoring World Trade Organization commitments, furthering the bio-based economy, conserving our natural resources, strengthening local and regional food systems, and promoting job growth in rural America.
“As the legislative process moves forward, the (Obama) administration will continue to seek policy solutions and savings consistent with the President’s budget, and we are hopeful that the House of Representatives will produce a bill with those same goals in mind. Swift action is needed so that American farmers and ranchers and our rural communities have the certainty they need to continue strengthening the rural and national economy."
While the crop insurance-heavy Senate legislation has been widely applauded for ending direct payments to farmers, it has not been able to skirt criticism. Southern farm interests and lawmakers – particularly those representing rice, peanuts and cotton producers – have complained vociferously about the Senate’s approach.
Critics have also included economists – including the University of Tennessee’s Darryll Ray and Harwood Schaffer (see here and here) – who have repeatedly warned that the Senate bill will cost much more than estimated if current high crop prices drop.
Among the amendments voted on prior to the full bill’s passage:
- Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn’s amendment that would disallow USDA conservation payments to millionaires passed.
- Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley’s amendment to provide crop insurance to organic crop farmers passed.
- South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint's amendment to keep USDA from increasing grants to those providing broadband access in rural areas failed.
“We are pleased that the Senate was able to come together in a bipartisan manner to pass the 2012 farm bill, which is such a vital piece of legislation for family farmers and ranchers across the country,” said Nation Farmers Union president Roger Johnson.“We look forward to working with members of the U.S. House of Representatives to get a farm bill passed, and then working with both chambers of Congress through a conference committee to complete a bill by the time the current farm bill expires on Sept. 30.”
John Keeling, National Potato Council executive vice president and CEO and co-chair of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance applauded lawmakers for getting a “challenging but vital farm bill over the Senate finish line. The policies of the farm bill passed by the Senate will help protect the tens of thousands of jobs associated with the specialty crop industry and will help create more. And it further strengthens the access of all Americans to the specialty crops that enhance their daily lives.”
National Corn Growers Association president Garry Niemeyer said the organization “is pleased to see this significant hurdle has been overcome. … Our focus now turns to the House Agriculture Committee with hopes that they will schedule a markup of their version of the farm bill for immediately following the July 4 recess.”
"The farm bill is the United States' primary means for engaging farmers, ranchers and foresters in stewardship of America's natural resources," said Sara Hopper, agricultural policy director of Environmental Defense Fund. "The continuing economic prosperity of agriculture is critical to the nation. But it is also true that agriculture has a significant environmental footprint. It affects – and is affected by – soil health, reliable supplies of clean water, and healthy ecosystems.
"With increasing pressures to feed a growing global population, America's natural resources are under more demand and stress than ever before," said Hopper. "Demand for conservation assistance for farmers already outstrips available conservation dollars. Congress must maintain and strengthen its commitment to conservation in this farm bill and one way to do that is through innovate partnership programs that bring conservation dollars to local communities."
Ken Cook, president of Environmental Working Group, said “The bill passed today by the Senate builds upon past efforts to support healthy diets and expands links between consumers and farmers. It also includes important reforms to crop insurance subsidies. However, the bill needlessly cuts vital nutrition and conservation funding, threatening a decade of environmental progress.”