Senate passes Farm Bill; action now in the House
On June 10, the Senate approved a sweeping new farm bill that will cost nearly $955 billion over the next 10 years, the first step in a renewed attempt at passing legislation that will reauthorize the country’s food and agriculture programs and policy.
The bill — Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act — passed with bipartisan support, 66 to 27. (The Senate passed a similar bill last year, but the House failed to bring its respective bill to a vote. The 2008 Farm Bill was due to expire last September, but was extended until Sept. 30 of this year.)
The new Senate bill makes a $4 billion cut over ten years to the current Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and nearly $6 billion to Conservation programs, again over ten years. Some improvements were made in the Senate bill, such as terminating unnecessary Direct Payments to commodity farmers and placing a cap on Crop Insurance subsidies for farmers earning more than $750,000.
The House is now debating their version of the farm bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee earlier this year. The House plan proposes reducing agriculture funding by nearly $40 billion over the next 10-year period. This includes a severe cut of more than $20 billion to SNAP and more than $5 billion in cuts to Conservation programs.
The House proposal also calls for ending some subsidies to commodity producers, which is a step in the right direction given commodity prices and other risk management tools. However, the Catholic community continues to urge policymakers to make further reductions and to target limited subsidies to farmers and ranchers who truly need support.
Let him or her know that these severe cuts are unjust and unfair.
Highlights of Senate Farm Bill
> Domestic Nutrition Assistance
The Senate bill cuts $24 billion from current spending levels, including about $4.1 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the next 10 years.
In response, some anti-hunger and poverty groups said the cuts in food assistance would put millions of poor families at risk. Their greater concern, however, is now directed at the House of Representatives, which is proposing cuts of $20 billion in food assistance programs. It remains to be seen how the House and Senate versions will be reconciled, if the House keeps to such a deep cut in their final vote.
> Commodity Production and Crop Insurance Programs
The most significant change in the Senate bill for commodity farmers is the elimination of about $5 billion a year in direct payments to farmers and farmland owners. This reform was expected and long overdue; this “safety net” program is no longer practical or necessary.
In its place, farm operators are eligible to receive support through the highly subsidized Crop Insurance program, now the primary safety net when crop prices and farm revenue drop. Currently, the government subsidizes about 62 percent of the crop insurance premiums, and the policies typically guarantee 75 percent to 85 percent of a farmer’s revenue.
Critics of crop insurance point out that the subsidy payments are not tied to conservation compliance, which was an important requirement for Commodity program payments.
Other critics of crop insurance say this is actually a farm income support program rather than a system that protects farmers in times of disasters. According to the National Family Farm Coalition, this subsidy program privatizes the supposed safety net for grain and dairy farmers by shifting to a corporate-controlled insurance payment program.
(The Crop Insurance subsidy would cost about $9 billion a year. The policies are sold by 15 private insurance companies, which receive a total of about $1.3 billion annually from the government. The government also backs the companies against losses.
For Southern rice and peanut farmers, the Senate bill adds special subsidies; rice and peanut commodity groups argue that crop insurance subsidies alone do not provide an inadequate safety net for their farmers and producers.
> Conservation Programs
The Senate bill consolidates a variety of existing programs into bigger umbrella programs, but it cuts nearly $6 billion from important and popular conservation programs over ten years. It takes a disproportionate amount of the overall spending cut from the Conservation Stewardship Program. The Senate bill also fails to reform the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Read more about Conservation and other important programs in the Senate farm bill at the site of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
> Rural Development and Local Food Systems
The Senate took a step in the right direction with rural development initiatives that will help rural communities upgrade infrastructure, extend broadband internet availability and create a better environment for small businesses.
The bill does very well for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program and SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer provision for direct farmer-to-consumer markets. The bill could have been stronger for the Rural Micro-entrepreneur Assistance Program and for Community Food Grants.
The Senate bill, however, fails to include Farm-to-School provisions (included in the House bill) for USDA Foods; fails to include local and regional food infrastructure improvements to an array of rural development programs; fails to include the Local and Regional Food Enterprise Facilitation program; and fails to increase funding for the Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program.
> International Food Aid
The Senate left in place the decades-old international food aid program. The Obama administration had called for overhauling the $1.4 billion program to allow the government to buy food locally in less developed countries, instead of buying food in the United States and shipping it overseas. The Senate rejected the proposal, but increased spending for buying food abroad to $60 million from $40 million.
In various reactions to the Senate bill, the agriculture industry generally praised the bill. Environmental groups said the bill has some important changes, but added that it fell short because it would expand Crop Insurance subsidies and price guarantees for the largest and most successful farmers while cutting Nutrition and Conservation programs. Catholic Rural Life agrees with this overall assessment.
Learn more about Catholic Rural Life perspectives on the Farm Bill at our Agriculture & Food web section.