The House has passed an almost $100 billion-a-year, compromise farm bill that would make small cuts to food stamps and continue generous subsidies for the nation's farmers. (Ed Andrieski / AP)
Washington — U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow wasn’t leaving anything to chance Wednesday when it came to her signature piece of legislation.
After seeing the farm bill go down in smoke in the GOP-led House of Representatives too many times during the last couple of years, the Lansing Democrat crossed to the other side of the Capitol Wednesday morning and lobbied her House counterparts to pass the critical legislation up until the final vote was cast on the House floor.
Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, was armed with a four-page list of supporters for the legislation and distributed it freely, reminding members of the importance of the legislation to a broad coalition of farmers, conservationists and church groups.
She stood near the front of the House chamber as members cast votes and listened as the final vote tally was read: 251-166.
“I’ve learned a long time ago that it’s not over until the vote is closed and so I wanted to make absolutely sure,” a beaming Stabenow said after exiting the House floor through a receiving line of congratulating members.
The historically bipartisan legislation overcame sharp disagreements on dairy policy, cuts to food stamp programs and an insistence in the House to separate agriculture programs from nutrition programs. The compromise legislation led by Stabenow and her GOP House counterpart, Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, was reached late Monday and culminated weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations.
The farm bill now heads to the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it could come up for a vote as soon as Thursday, Stabenow said.
The 2014 farm bill will cost $956 billion over a decade — with nearly 80 percent of the money going to nutrition programs, such as food stamps. Since it ends direct payments to farmers, sheds duplicate programs and trims food stamp funding, the Stabenow-led farm bill is projected to reduce the budget deficit $16.6 billion over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Ten members of the Michigan House delegation voted in favor of the bill, while four disapproved. Among the dissenters, Democratic U.S. Reps. Sander Levin of Royal Oak and John Conyers of Detroit voted no over concerns about the cuts to the food safety net program, while Republican U.S. Reps. Justin Amash of Cascade Township and Kerry Bentiviolio of Milford argued the spending cuts and reforms didn’t go far enough.
The Michigan Farm Bureau praised the House passage of the farm bill, calling the legislation the most significant and far-reaching package of agricultural legislation in the nation.
“It’s been a long, hard road to this point, but we’re encouraged to finally see this kind of progress in Washington,” said Ryan Findlay, the bureau’s national legislative counsel. “Now we’re hoping to see the Senate finish the job. The sooner this legislation is in place, the sooner farmers in Michigan and across the nation can engage the 2014 growing season with renewed certainty.”
The 2008 farm bill expired last year. Stabenow led passage of a new farm bill in the Senate in 2012 and 2013, but the House didn’t pass its version until last year. That set up a conference committee between the two chambers late last year to resolve differences.
One of the biggest differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill had been cuts to food stamps, with the Senate cutting $4 billion compared with the House's nearly $40 billion over 10 years.
Compromise was reached to about $8 billion by changing rules for claiming credit for state-provided home heating assistance that can artificially inflate the food stamp awards. Stabenow argues such changes won't kick any eligible person off the program and ensures the safety net.
The Michigan League for Public Policy called the compromise a “good one” that will keep “largely intact” the nutrition program, formally called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“The SNAP agreement approved today stands in sharp contrast to the draconian cuts in the original House bill that would have cut tens of thousands in Michigan from food assistance and would have harmed children, veterans, low-income seniors and those with disabilities,” said the league’s policy director Karen Holcomb-Merrill. “No doubt, some households in Michigan will see reduced benefits through a change in the ‘heat and eat; option. The reductions, however, are far less severe than the House alternative.”
The new farm bill will also create a safety net specialty crop insurance program to soften losses the next time the weather and frost ravages crops. Michigan is the largest producer of tart cherries nationwide but fruit farmers haven't had access to the kind of insurance programs corn farmers have enjoyed.
The new policies represent “a dramatic shift” by replacing direct payments to farmers with expanded risk-management programs, according to the Michigan Farm Bureau.
“That puts the onus on the farmer to take responsibility for managing the risks inherent in his or her own business,” Findlay said. “We like that.”
Michigan’s diversity of crops, from apples to Christmas trees, is second only to California in the nation. Gov. Rick Snyder specifically mentioned the booming agricultural industry in his State of the State address this month. The state’s agriculture sector is on its way to becoming a $100 billion industry, buoyed by a 16 percent increase in agriculture exports to other countries in the last year, he said.
“This is so important, first of all, for 16 million people who work in agriculture and have really been left hanging now for two years,” Stabenow said of the bill’s passage. “... I’m extremely pleased that our effort, which was truly a bipartisan, House/Senate effort ... has worked. I hope that this is an example of how the House and Senate should be working together to get things done.”