Turning back a determined effort to recommit the conference report and undo two years of work, the House passed a six-year farm bill that will provide $73.5 billion in additional funding to help farmers get back on their feet after years of disastrous prices.
House members first defeated Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind's motion to recommit, 251-172, and then voted to approve the conference report hammered out in nearly two months of intense negotiations by House and Senate conferees, 280-141.
At press-time, the Senate had scheduled 12 hours of debate May 7-8 to allow Republican Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Richard Lugar of Indiana to have their final say on the conference report and farm policy before holding what is expected to be the last vote on the measure.
On the day the House voted, May 2, President Bush issued a statement praising Chairman Larry Combest and other members of the House-Senate conference committee and promising to sign the farm bill when it reaches his desk.
Although Grassley and Lugar were expected to raise more objections to the payment limit language and increased price supports in the conference report, Senate leaders were predicting passage.
“I am confident that this farm bill will be completed early next week and signed into law shortly thereafter,” said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman and the leader on the Senate side of the conference committee.
Farm groups, meanwhile, were enjoying the House victory even while they prepared for yet another farm bill debate in the Senate.
“This is a great day,” said Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Stoneville, Miss.-based Delta Council. “Our farmers have been holding their breath because they were afraid something might happen to upset this farm bill.”
For a while, that something appeared to be an effort led by conference committee members John Boehner, R-Ohio, vice chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and Cal Dooley, D-Calif., to have the House vote to send the report back to the conference committee.
Boehner argued that in replacing Freedom to Farm (the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act of 1996) the conference report was taking a “giant leap backwards” to policies that were shown to have failed years ago.
Dooley, who represents cotton and almond growers in California, said those “failed” policies were passed as temporary solutions and that the conference report was again trying to address long-term problems with those short-term answers.
“We can do better,” said Boehner, arguing that Congress could pass a supplemental emergency assistance bill now and come back after the November elections and write a “better farm bill.”
Combest said that the conference report filed April 30 after two months of negotiations offered the best chance for U.S. farmers to get back on their feet and begin to compete with more heavily subsidized farmers from other countries.
“You do not create a conference report in a vacuum,” said Combest, “and that was certainly the case with this report. It would take a tremendous amount of time to go back and write another conference report. We are out of time for our farmers. If this motion passes, this conference report is dead, and it will take a monumental effort to begin the process again.”
To Boehner's claims that the conference report sent the “wrong message” to U.S. trading partners, Rep. Charlie Stenholm, a conferee and ranking minority member on the Agriculture Committee disagreed.
“What this report says it that the United States will honor its WTO agreements — there is nothing in here that says we won't,” said Stenholm. “But what it also says loudly and clearly is that we will not unilaterally disarm our farmers while other countries continue to refuse to cut their subsidies and go on with business as usual.”
Responding to criticism from Mexico, Canada and the European Union that the report contained too many subsidies for American farmers, Combest said, “This is a farm bill for rural America; it is not a farm bill for rural Mexico or rural Canada or rural Europe.”
The conference chairman also denied claims that the farm bill was all about providing subsidy payments to farmers.
“In addition to desperately needed help for farmers, it contains the largest single increase in conservation funding in history, significant gains for food stamp and nutrition funding, more resources for agricultural research, increased incentives for renewable fuels production, and a strengthened commitment to our rural communities,” said Combest.
“And it is all accomplished within limits of the budget.”
The new farm bill's counter-cyclical payments will mean that Congress will not need to provide additional ad hoc income support when prices are in decline, said Stenholm. “Most importantly, it will continue to provide the American people with the most abundant food supply, the highest quality food and the safest food at the lowest cost to the consumer of any country in the world.”
Combest noted that passage of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act will provide better, more-flexible help for farmers. “While the emergency bills have averaged $7 billion per year, this farm bill averages less than $5 billion per year in additional spending to help farmers.”
The total cost of the bill's farming, nutrition, trade, and rural development aspects for the six-year term of the bill (fiscal 2002 to fiscal 2007) is projected at $45.11 billion by the Congressional Budget Office.
President Bush's statement read, in part: “I am pleased that the compromise agreement on the farm bill resulted in better-balanced commodity loan rates; spending that is no longer front-loaded; and the strongest conservation provisions of any farm bill ever passed by Congress. The final provisions of the farm bill are also consistent with America's international trade obligations, which will strengthen our ability to open foreign markets for American farm products.”