Farm bill debate begins

Pat Roberts, Debbie Stabenow
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, listens at left as Committee Chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 6, 2012, to discuss the bipartisan effort in the Senate to develop a farm and food bill that would bring fundamental changes to how the government protects food growers during hard times, including putting an end to paying farmers regardless of whether they plant a crop.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

An attempt to block debate on the next farm bill failed Thursday, which means the U.S. Senate will now consider the legislation over the coming week.

The bipartisan bill spends nearly a trillion dollars over the next 10 years but phases out direct payments to farmers and expands federally backed crop insurance. Supporters of the bill say it will have enough votes to pass, but opponents hope they can still kill it or make big changes.

The debate over the farm bill begins as farmers are flush with money due to high crop prices and as talk of fiscal austerity has taken over Washington.

Lawmakers are bragging about how much the bill cuts spending.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, said the 1,000-page bill ends scores of programs and consolidates many others. She said it would cut the federal deficit by $23 billion.

But despite those cuts over the next decade, the sheer size of the bill has made it a target for conservative groups such as the Club for Growth, which spends millions to support candidates that support its policies.

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Andy Roth is the Club's vice president for government affairs.

"When your risk is covered to some extent by the government, it's easier to participate in riskier behaviors."

"It's a huge monstrosity of a bill," said Andy Roth, the group's vice president for government affairs.

In a letter to lawmakers on Wednesday, Roth warned that the group would look closely at their votes on the farm bill when considering whether to endorse or oppose members of the Senate for re-election. The Club for Growth recently played a role in helping unseat longtime Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and many Republican lawmakers are wary of upsetting the group.

Roth said the group wants Congress to turn over the food stamp program to the states and to dismantle government support for the domestic sugar industry.

Although Roth thinks the bill spends too much, many other critics of the bill instead focus on how the bill spreads money around.

Perhaps the biggest foe of the Senate farm bill is the Environmental Working Group, which aims to protect consumers.

Scott Faber, the group's chief lobbyist, notes that the Senate farm bill makes cuts to nutrition programs for children and families and conservation efforts "to provide farmers a very costly new entitlement program and continue to provide them unlimited insurance subsidies."

The commitment to crop insurance will be tested next week when the Senate votes on an amendment by New York Democrat Kristen Gillibrand that would restore some cuts to food stamps by trimming insurance subsidies.

Other amendments would limit payments for wealthy farms and cap payments.

Meanwhile, conservation groups are unhappy the legislation doesn't require farmers who get federally-backed crop insurance to adopt conservation practices.

Kitty Smith, chief economist for the American Farmland Trust, said its members generally support the Senate bill. But Smith said with the government picking up 60 percent of the premiums for crop insurance, there should be strings attached.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in a file photo taken on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 2, 2010. Of the farm bill, Klobuchar said reaching any kind of bipartisan agreement in the present political climate is an achievement. "We have to be pragmatic and do the smartest most prudent thing we can and that's what we've got here," she said.

"I think we agree that the tit for tat is not unreasonable," she said. Smith also worries that the expanded emphasis on crop insurance will encourage farmers to put more and more marginal land into production, which could worsen erosion and water pollution.

"When your risk is covered to some extent by the government, it's easier to participate in riskier behaviors," she said.

Big corn and soybean agribusiness interests stand to get the most benefit from this farm bill, but the legislation also modestly increases spending on local, organic and sustainable agriculture.

"From that standpoint, there are some crumbs, millions not billions," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

Nestle would like to see more drastic changes in that direction but calls herself a political realist.

"You're dealing here with a situation in which we're in the middle of an election year in a greatly divided Congress," he said. "And everyone I've talked to without exception says this is the best that can be done."

Nestle's point is echoed Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Klobuchar, a Democrat, said reaching any kind of bipartisan agreement in the present political climate is an achievement.

"While people can say, 'I want something a little bit better, I wish I had it the way it was before, oh, I want more money,' they have to realize with the budget situation we're dealing with," Klobuchar said. "We have to be pragmatic and do the smartest most prudent thing we can and that's what we've got here."

The Senate hopes to finish the farm bill by the end of next week.

Lawmakers in the House say they plan to produce their own bill later this month that will, among other things, likely make deeper cuts to food stamps.