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What’s in the Farm Bill and Why

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For the second year in a row, the US Senate has written and passed a 5 year Farm Bill. Last year’s Senate Farm Bill became null and void when the House failed to vote on a Farm Bill.   This year the Senate used last year’s bill as a blueprint, made a few tweaks, and passed the legislation again.  Now the ball is back in the House’s court. While nothing is for certain in Washington, it does look more promising that the House will pass a bill this year.  But what is actually passed by either the House or Senate is of no real importance because it is a conference committee that will work out the vast differences between the Democrat-influenced Senate and Republican-influenced House bills.  There is, however, another factor at work here: money.

 

A recent analysis of financial contributions to Senators who voted for and against the Farm Bill turns up some interesting facts. According to the web site Open Secrets.org, Senators voting “YES” received  2.3 times more money from supporting interests than Senators voting “NO.” Senators voting “NO” received  3.6 times more money from opposing interests than senators voting “YES.” Martin Heinrich (D, NM) received  $359,106 from supporting interests, more than any other Senator. He voted “YES.” Jeff Flake (D, AZ) received  $1,385,370 from opposing interests, more than any other Senator. He voted
“NO.”  Contributors who supported the Senate Farm Bill included the crop insurance industry and the biotechnology industry, while groups who opposed the bill included fiscally conservative groups like Freedomworks and the Heritage Foundation and certain sectors of the dairy industry who opposed the Senate dairy program.

 

During the passage of a Farm Bill there are literally hundreds of amendments offered, some major and meaningful, others very specialized. Others are offered and then withdrawn which allows a lawmaker to tell the folks back home, “I offered this amendment, but it did not get included in the final bill.”  This little game was played dozens of times during the Senate Farm Bill process. Some of the amendments offered are on behalf of very specialized sectors only loosely related to agriculture, for example an amendment to authorize a checkoff for the stone industry.  Generally speaking, most of these don’t step on too many toes or cost too much money and they slide past with little notice.

 

Other amendments step on some very powerful toes; take, for example, the Sugar program. The Sugar Program has been criticized for boosting the price of American sugar by providing nonrecourse loans to growers and processors of sugarcane and sugar beets. It also restricts the amount of sugar that can be imported to the U.S. from other countries. Critics of the program argue that it uses taxpayer resources while increasing costs for food consumers and manufacturers. Sugar supporters retort the program is self-funded, does not cost taxpayers any money, and is needed to protect the US sugar industry. This is not a partisan issue because both Republican and Democrat administrations have tried to modify the program for decades to no avail. At this point, it looks like the next Farm Bill will make no changes in the Sugar program.

 

The Senate and the House Farm Bills include many reforms to long-standing agricultural programs. Direct payments to farmers would be eliminated, food stamps and nutrition programs would be reduced, and government funding for conservation efforts would be cut.  But, so far, at least one major farm bill program would be left untouched. According to the Senate Agriculture Committee summary, under the bill “the Sugar Program is continued without changes through 2017.” The House’s version of the bill would also reauthorize the Sugar Program without any changes. A review of Sugar industry contributions demonstrates why the industry continues to get such a sweet deal from Congress. Between January 1 of 2011 and December of 2012, members of the Senate have received $637,830 from the sugar industry. Members of the House have received $3,168,232 from the sugar industry. Senator Bill Nelson received more money from the sugar industry than any other member of Congress ($71,250). Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow received $65,830 from the sugar industry, 9.2 times more than average for members of Congress ($7,127).  House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas received $56,000 from the sugar industry, 7.9 times more than average for members of Congress.

 

So, does this mean that the Farm Bill is controlled by big agribusiness and that all elected officials are a bunch of money grubbing sell-outs? No, all this is perfectly legal and is done on a much larger scale on other major bills.  It does explain why a lot of the junk that is in the Farm Bill is in the bill. It also demonstrates why farmer involvement is so important. It is a proven fact that a phone call, personal visit, or handwritten note can be just as powerful as a PAC contribution. The way to lessen the influence of big industry PACs is personal involvement — and perhaps some personal contributions.

 

by Gary Truitt