Farm bill debate moves to House after Senate acts
By Christine Souza
Now that the U.S. Senate has passed its version of the farm bill—the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012—attention turns to the House of Representatives, which plans to begin work on its version of the legislation after it returns to session on July 11.
The House Agriculture Committee announced last week a delay in House consideration of the bill, but Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said he will move "hell or high water" on the farm bill after the Independence Day holiday recess. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has not listed the farm bill for potential action on the House floor this summer, however, and has been quoted as saying he wants to "push the pause button" on the bill and assess the political situation.
The ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said he considers it "crucial" that the House finish work on the legislation before the current farm 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," Peterson said. "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."
California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger, a walnut and almond farmer from Modesto, said farmers and ranchers have called for prompt action in the passage of federal farm policy. He said Farm Bureau was encouraged by the package that the Senate approved last Thursday by a 64 to 35 vote.
Wenger said CFBF supports many aspects of the Senate bill, including a number of programs that benefit California farmers, ranchers, consumers and the environment.
"The Senate has passed a bipartisan bill that contains $23 billion in savings but maintains programs to help farmers stay competitive in global markets, feed those in need and improve the environment," Wenger said. "We hope the House will be as efficient as the Senate in debating the bill, and that the final version of the farm bill retains many of the programs that the Senate thoughtfully crafted."
The Senate farm bill decreases the number of conservation programs from 23 to 13. The new structure streamlines some processes for farmers and ranchers and gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture more flexibility to account for economic and environmental differences across the country. At the same time, the Senate bill continues to fund and prioritize programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Grassland Reserve Program, which focus on conserving working farmland instead of taking land out of food and fiber production.
CFBF succeeded in urging passage of an amendment, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that pulled the Air Quality Initiative back from elimination. The program provides assistance to farmers and ranchers for agricultural air quality programs.
Another amendment introduced by Feinstein, approved unanimously by the Senate, includes a study into the feasibility of crop insurance to cover farmers harmed by, but not responsible for, food safety recalls.
"The Senate-passed farm bill makes significant investments in California's $38 billion-a-year agricultural industry—most notably in pest and disease management, organic farming and important research programs," Feinstein said.
Other farm bill programs of particular interest to California farmers protect against invasive pest species and assist in domestic and foreign market development.
The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, a coalition of 120 organizations representing fruit, vegetable, nut and other specialty crop producers, said the Senate bill "addresses many of the critical priorities" the alliance outlined and continues specialty crop programs established in the 2008 Farm Bill. CFBF is a member of the alliance.
"California farmers produce a large proportion of the nation's specialty crops, and we're pleased to see that programs benefiting specialty crop growers stayed intact as the Senate debated the farm bill," Wenger said.
The legislation restructures the safety net and eliminates $5 billion a year in direct payments, but strengthens crop insurance program.
"The Senate has provided us solid footing by approving a bill that stands firm on $23 billion in savings, yet protects and strengthens the federal crop insurance program and provides a commodity title that attempts to encourage producers to follow market signals rather than make planting decisions in anticipation of government payments," American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman said.
"Now it will be interesting to see what happens on the House side," Wenger said. "The Senate maintained some important programs for agriculture and the environment, and we hope the package stays that way as the House debates its bill."
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.