WASHINGTON – After two years of back-and-forth negotiations, House and Senate conferees have struck a deal on a new farm bill that imposes cuts in the food stamp program and eliminates the controversial direct payment subsidy program for farmers.
The measure, which could come up for a House vote as early as Wednesday, reduces food stamp appropriations by about $800 million a year over the next five years but doesn’t cut any qualified individuals from the program. Instead of direct payments the bill shifts focus toward enhancing the availability of crop insurance, meaning farmers won’t receive financial support unless they face losses.
The package is expected to cost about $100 billion a year over five years – an anticipated cut of around $2.3 billion a year overall from current spending. It has attracted the support of the House Republican leadership – House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called it “a step in the right direction” – but a sizeable portion of the GOP caucus likely will offer opposition as a result of what they consider insufficient food stamp cuts. Some Democrats are also liable to vote against it because they view those cuts as too extreme.
Regardless, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, promoted the measure as one that “saves taxpayers billions, eliminates unnecessary subsidies, creates a more effective farm safety-net and helps farmers and businesses create jobs.”
It also, she said, benefits from being part of a bipartisan effort.
“This bill proves that by working across party lines we can reform programs to save taxpayer money while strengthening efforts to grow our economy,” Stabenow said. “Agriculture is a bright spot in our economy and is helping to drive our recovery. It’s time for Congress to finish this Farm Bill and give the 16 million Americans working in agriculture the certainty they need and deserve.”
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) also touted the savings, asserting that the Agricultural Act of 2014 “is good for farmers, ranchers, consumers and those who have hit difficult times.”
It also carries the seal of approval from the American Farm Bureau Federation, which called the proposal “a solid bill” that will “provide farmers and ranchers certainty for the coming year.”
At the same time, the bill drew criticism from organizations like the Environmental Working Group.
“The bill is seriously flawed and misses an important opportunity to produce agriculture policy that meets the needs of family farmers and the environment and helps families put nutritious food on their tables,” said Craig Cox, EWG senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources.
Still, it appears the bill will have the votes to pass.
The most important policy shift for agriculture producers involves the elimination of the heavily criticized, $5 billion per year direct payment regime that has its roots in the 1996 farm bill. As currently administered, individuals can receive subsidies whether they are actually planting or not, even though the Department of Agriculture anticipates that farm income is likely to hit its highest level in 40 years this year.
Instead, farmers may qualify for subsidies to purchase crop insurance that could prove vital in instances of weather disasters and market volatility, providing farmers with a risk management tool intended to provide protection in difficult times.