Hour after hour, senators debated and voted on more than 70 amendments to the Farm Bill. Some were passed on voice votes with no opposition, while others involved tedious roll calls. One motion even attempted to send the entire Farm Bill back to committee for more cost cutting. There are three forces at work in this process: Republicans who want to cut as much spending as possible, Democrats who want to oppose the cuts called for by the GOP, and agriculturally-oriented lawmakers who want to get the bill passed with as few changes as possible. On Wednesday afternoon, the latter group was successful in preventing any drastic changes to the legislation.
One amendment that has sparked opposition by farm groups was an effort to cut funding for the agricultural trade promotion program. Secretary of Ag Tom Vilsack says a strong trade title is needed in the Farm Bill. He called efforts to trim funding for this program pennywise and pound foolish, “Trade promotion helps exports and improves trade.” He told HAT that for every dollar invested in the program more than $30 is generated, “I don’t know how you are doing with your money, but that is certainly a better return than I am getting on mine.” He said he hopes Congress will maintain a strong trade title in the legislation. Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn was successful in his attempt to reduce funding for the Market Access Program and restrict the use of program funds. The amendment was opposed by 80 members of the Coalition to Promote U.S. Agricultural Exports.
A major showdown was expected on funding for SNAP, the food assistance program that accounts for a major portion of the USDA budget. Vilsack admitted reform is needed but worried the program will be damaged by too much reform, “Some of the cuts that are being suggested would make the program more difficult for people who need the assistance.” He added cuts to the food stamp program also have an impact on farm income, since 14 cents of every food assistance dollar spent goes to the pocket of a farmer. But Republicans says the food stamp program is out of control and need to be reined in.
In other roll call votes, Senators also rejected amendments to eliminate the authority of the Secretary to increase the amount of grants provided to eligible entities relating to providing access to broadband telecommunications services in rural areas, to repeal the forest legacy program, and to repeal the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Conservation Reserve Program. Also rejected was an attempt to reform the sugar program.
An amendment to slash support for cellulosic ethanol was defeated, although Indiana Senator Coats voted in favor of the amendment. Senator Toomey’s amendment, #2226, would have repealed the Biorefinery Assistance Program. The amendment was defeated by a vote of 63 to 33. After the defeat of the amendment, Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis said, “The Biorefinery Assistance Program is instrumental in the production of the next generation of ethanol. This program is in place to foster innovation and American excellence. By rejecting this amendment, the Senate has clearly shown they understand the importance of advanced biofuels and the benefits of cleaner air, job creation and energy security.”
Late in the afternoon, the Senate accepted an amendment by Senator Tom Coburn that would reduce the level of government subsidy on crop insurance premiums for farmers earning more than $750,000. In passionate opposition, Kansas Senator Pat Roberts said the amendment would reduce participation in crop insurance and increase premiums for all farmers. The amendment was adopted by a vote of 66 to 33.
Another amendment that was disappointing to farm groups tied conservation compliance to crop insurance. National Corn Growers Association President Garry Niemeyer released the following statement in response to the Senate passing Chambliss amendment #2438: “The National Corn Growers Association is very disappointed to see passage of Senator Saxby Chambliss’ conservation compliance for crop insurance amendment in the 2012 farm bill. Our members have spent a significant amount of time discussing this issue and feel this addition to the farm bill would have a negative impact toward America’s farmers. NCGA’s official policy states we oppose the coupling of conservation compliance to eligibility for federal crop insurance.”
The process will continue on Thursday. There are approximately 10 amendments left for Senate action. It is expected that the Senate will finish work and pass the bill on Thursday.