May 21, 2013
After failing to pass a farm bill in the 112th Congress and burying a nine-month extension in the “fiscal cliff” tax bill that the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) deemed a “disaster for farmers,” the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are again taking up the task of crafting this complex and cumbersome piece of legislation. We take a quick look at where the Senate and House versions of the Farm Bill are, and what they may hold for public health.
On Tuesday, May 14, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved a farm bill by a vote of 15-5 that looks very similar to the version that passed the full Senate by a vote of 64-35 in the last session of Congress. Of the two farm bills under debate, the Senate version is perhaps better for public health—in no small part due to the much smaller proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ($4 billion over ten years compared with $20 billion in the House). These cuts are larger than what the Senate proposed in the last session, but may garner more Republican support for the Senate version of the bill. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D–NY) has vowed to introduce an amendment to strike the $4 billion cut to SNAP when the bill goes to the floor—she voted against the bill in Committee saying, “I don’t believe that we should balance the debt on the backs of families who are just hungry.”
The most obvious “reform” in the bill is the phasing out of direct payments on commodity crops – long a controversial component of the Farm Bill with a $5 billion annual price tag – although the Senate bill retains price supports for peanut and rice farmers. Savings from direct payments will be used to increase the federal subsidy for crop insurance, now the biggest federal safety net for farmers. The Senate bill has more support from environmental and public health groups, as it links eligibility for crop insurance with requirements for conservation compliance and sets income limits for participants (for more information on the public health impacts of conservation see Protecting Health by Linking Conservation Compliance with Crop Insurance). More good news for public health: the Senate bill includes crop insurance options that will benefit diversified and organic farmers, as well as retain funding for programs to benefit rural development and producers for local and regional markets (see NSAC’s run-down of the Senate bill for more information).
Critics of crop insurance come from both progressive and conservative groups, the former claiming the main beneficiaries will continue to be agribusiness and large producers in favor of smaller diversified and organic producers, and the latter that crop insurance is just another form of federally subsidized income protection.
On May 15, the House Agriculture Committee voted out its 2013 Farm Bill (HR-1947, Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Bill) by a margin of 36-10 after an all day mark-up session. Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R–OK) opened proceedings by calling the legislation, “a reform-minded farm bill that was developed with true bipartisanship.”
The House bill eliminates direct payments in favor of expanded crop insurance options as well, however environmental and public health advocacy groups see a cause for alarm as crop insurance subsidies lack conservation requirements to protect wetlands and healthy soil. Additionally, the transition away from direct payments has been criticized as reform in name only – spending is shifted to crop insurance subsidies with loopholes allowing individual farms to collect unlimited payments and no cap on insurance subsidies. For a more complete run down on the impact of the House bill on conservation, competition, and commodities take a look at the recent post by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
The House makes some of its deepest cuts in domestic food aid. Funding for SNAP would be slashed by $20 billion over 10 years. According to Chairman Lucas these cuts would be achieved by “enforcing the asset and income tests, ending recruitment activities that increase enrollment,” and restricting eligibility for traditional college students, and of all people, lottery winners (probably not a major share of the $20 billion in savings).
The debate over reductions in SNAP was heated and revealed ideological fault lines between parties on the role of government in assistance to the poor. Both sides quoted Bible passages on feeding the hunger in defense of their position. Iowa Republican Steve King justified the need for the cuts to counter what he called the Obama administration’s “concerted effort to increase the dependency class.” In defiance of the measure, progressive Congressman Jim McGovern (D–MA) put forth an amendment to reinstate the funding slashed by deep cuts to the SNAP program, which was defeated 17-27, hewing closely to party lines.
Two very concerning amendments passed by the committee that will negatively impact sustainable food animal production were introduced by Rep. King (R–Iowa) and Rep. Conaway (R–TX),. King’s amendment limits states’ rights. As David Rogers reported in Politico, “…the language [in King’s amendment] would bar any state from excluding the marketing of ‘agricultural products’ if they have been grown in a manner ‘pursuant’ to federal law and the laws of the state or locality from which they come. Proponents argue that this is needed to allow the free flow of farm commerce across state lines. But for animal welfare groups, it’s a huge Catch 22, since the same committee continues to resist any new federal standards for raising livestock—preferring to leave the issue to farmers and individual states.” Conaway’s amendment repeals GIPSA and prevents the enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act. This is a major blow to livestock producers who had been seeking fairer contracts, increased competition in the livestock markets, and a more level playing field.
Some wins for the public health community included an amendment by Representative Fudge (D–OH), which would authorize and expand the Healthy Food Financing Initiative and increase funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program.
The full Senate began farm bill consideration Monday, May 20. It will likely take several days, if not into next week for them to complete the process. Now is the time to stay vigilant as various amendments will be introduced in the coming days. It is important to be sure your senators know your priorities for the farm bill.
The House is expected to take up the bill sometime in June with hopes of votes on the House and Senate floor before the August recess. There is momentum to pass a reconciled bill prior to the extension deadline of September 30.
For more information of the House and Senate bills, take a look at the following resources:
“Almost the same cost, spent differently: Comparing farm bills in House, Senate committees” Washington Post, May 15 2013.
NSAC comments on Senate farm bill markup. May 14 2013
NSAC comments on house farm bill markup. May 16 2013
Statement by Bob Stallman, President, American Farm Bureau Federation, Regarding House Agriculture Committee Approval of Bipartisan Farm Bill