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Nutrition and dairy face major farm bill fight

Nutrition and dairy face major farm bill fight

Debates on nutrition programs and dairy policy are sure to be a source of rancor as the farm bill marches on.

After offered amendments and heated debates on dairy and nutrition programs, the House Agriculture Committee passed a new, $940 billion farm bill 36-10 on a largely partisan vote.

Read the bill here.

Democrats, deeply unhappy with some $20 billion in cuts to food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) proposed by Republicans, weren’t persuaded after nine hours of back-and-forth – including frequent quoting of Bible verses and theologically-based arguments from both sides – to vote for the bill. The scrum also included Democrats railing against the nutrition program cuts while funding for recent wars and foreign nation-building has reached into the trillions of dollars.

A typical exchange came after Republican Rep. Fincher of Tennessee quoted his grandfather: “’Son, be careful when you have the conversation about giving people their way out of poverty. Because no matter how much you give them, until they realize they have to do it on their own, it’s a very slippery slope.’ … Again, we go back to the role of government. We have to be very careful.”

After relaying a story about his daughter, a kindergarten teacher, finding a student stuffing his pockets with squash grown in the school’s garden to feed a sibling, California Democrat John Garamendi pointed out 25 percent of American children are inadequately nourished. “What are we doing?  We can talk all we want about responsibility all we want – whether it’s a government responsibility, a community responsibility, a church or an individual. Well, by God, it’s our responsibility. (Lawmakers) are responsible for every single American, in one way or another. And we’re responsible for those that are hungry.”

The House farm bill reforms “rein in the cost of the program by enforcing the asset and income tests, ending recruitment activities that increase enrollment, and preventing states from circumventing the law to receive greater federal funding,” said Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, House Agriculture Committee chairman.

Meanwhile, with the exception of a 70-plus minute debate on dairy policy, the commodity and conservation titles emerged from the mark-up without much scrutiny, although both will undoubtedly face questions once the bill hits the House floor this summer.  

The House farm bill calls for some $40 billion in spending cuts over the next decade. As already mentioned, half that total comes from nutrition programs with the balance coming from cuts to other titles. As in the Senate farm bill, the House would eliminate direct payments, with savings of about $5 billion annually that will be used to fund expanded crop insurance programs along with target prices for rice and peanuts.

The House farm bill also provides for livestock producer insurance, added money to specialty crop programs, and left the sugar program – including restrictions on imports -- largely intact.

Dairy policy

“We eliminate direct payments, which were paid to farmers regardless of market conditions and many times to farmers who were no longer farming,” said Lucas. The House bill, “reflects a belief in a true safety net -- something used when disaster hits such as aggressive weather or down markets. This safety net is in the best interest of all of us because it enables us to have a stable and affordable food supply.”

The Commodity Title, said Lucas, “is cut by nearly $23 billion, which is a reduction of more than 30 percent. This cut is made while still providing producers a new kind of safety net that allows them risk management choices. I’ve said many times that policy must work for all commodities in all regions. While I personally do not favor a revenue-style program, it is in the (House farm bill) as a choice for producers because some of them believe they can manage their risk better with it.”

Lucas allowed that “no one” on the House Agriculture Committee “is going to like everything in this bill -- that includes me. But, farmers, ranchers, and the American taxpayer are counting on us to pass a farm bill. Let’s give certainty to an industry that has been a bright spot in an otherwise dismal economy; let’s give taxpayers billions of dollars in deficit reduction.”

The lengthy debate over dairy policy was kicked off with margin insurance-related amendment offered by Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte – and backed by Democrat David Scott of Georgia --which would have replaced the Dairy Security Act. Goodlatte repeatedly warned that the act would increase the cost of milk to consumers.

Chiefly authored by Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking member, the Dairy Security Act contains a controversial market stabilization component that would influence the size of the national dairy herd. Peterson didn’t back down and pointed to the 2009 dairy industry collapse when supplies were too high. Without the act, he warned that "a two percent oversupply” would lead to a similar situation and that “25 percent” of the country’s dairy farmers would be driven from business “because there is no margin left."

Goodlatte said smaller dairy operations, under the act, “while they might like to grow … would have to reduce the size of their herd. This is so antithetical to the future growth of the dairy industry, a very vital part of the American dairy industry. To say ‘because prices fall, we’ll have a government bureaucracy tell you to cut back the size of your herd’ (is wrong).”

Goodlatte’s amendment failed 26 to 20.

Late in the night, Missouri Rep. Viki Hartzler – just as she did during last year’s mark-up – proposed an amendment to do away with the USDA catfish inspection program mandated in the 2008 farm bill. Despite erroneously describing the program as “duplicative,” Hartzler’s amendment eventually prevailed on a 31-15 vote.

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