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Senate needs to prevail in farm bill negotiations

The U.S. Senate passed its farm bill 86-11 at the end of June, following the House’s having squeaked out passage of its own deplorable version, 213-211. Both houses’ actions reflect the importance of getting a bill passed quickly, before the current farm bill expires on Sept. 30, without becoming ensnarled in election-year campaign politics.

Six years ago, with a similar deadline looming, Congress stalemated over Republican efforts to disable the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps); when they failed to authorize a new farm bill before the old one expired, crucial programs were left unable to conduct their work — some for well over a year! Beginning farmers didn’t receive training; farmers’ markets and other market innovations lost funding; programs supporting farmer profitability, research, and other crucial functions were stopped from providing needed services to farmers, consumers, and rural communities.

So it’s a good sign that both houses have passed their farm bills this summer, but the House bill is egregious in so many ways that a great deal hangs on the outcome of the House-Senate conference negotiations. While dramatically better than the House’s bill, the Senate’s version is hardly the perfect white horse on which to gallop into this battle. Most disappointing was the Senate leadership’s disallowing a vote on an amendment that probably would have passed requiring wealthier farmers (making over $700,000 in “adjusted gross income” annually) to pay more of the premium on their own crop insurance. It would have saved taxpayers half a billion dollars over the life of the farm bill and imposed some discipline and reform to systems that pay unearned subsidies to the wealthiest farmers and investors.

But that theme of robbing from the poor to pay for excesses of the rich plays out more dramatically in the House bill. Whereas the Senate bill does include restrictions to farm program subsidies being paid to nonfarmers, the House bill actually removes existing flimsy caps and makes it open season for wealthy corporate farms to grow indefinitely big and nonfarmer investors to gain indefinite tax-funded subsidies, squeezing out legitimate smaller farmers from the market as they do, and making it next to impossible for beginning farmers to enter into farming. Supporting such concentration in agriculture is terrible policy and a major hardship on taxpayers. Fiscal responsibility alone argues for the Senate’s version.

While dishing out billions for wealthy farmers and nonfarmers, House Republicans saw nothing but opportunity when it came to penalizing poor people who need food aid, imposing work requirements that would remove millions of people from food stamps. Similar proposals were resoundingly defeated in the Senate; for the sake of fairness, the Senate needs to prevail here.

The House bill also cuts the voluntary program that supports conservation practices on more acreage than any other program — the Conservation Stewardship Program. The pretense that this program is just being incorporated into another conservation program doesn’t hold water, as the House bill carefully eliminates this program’s most important provisions to “Reward the Best and Motivate the Rest.” Destroying this program, along with other conservation cuts, asserts the cynical principle that future generations’ ability to farm is irrelevant to society’s interest.

This editorial by MFAI’s Policy Director is reprinted with the permission of The Capital Times of Madison.

The Institute’s many active readers who care about farmers, conservation, fair play, and good policy, should know that this is a very good time to write brief letters to the editor and let your Members of Congress know that you want to see the Senate Farm Bill’s provisions on farm program payment limits, conservation, SNAP benefits, beginning farmers and rural development prevail in the House-Senate Conference.