The Senate on Thursday completed a five-year, half-trillion-dollar farm bill that cuts farm subsidies and land conservation spending by about $2 billion a year but largely protects Idaho sugar growers and some 46 million food stamp beneficiaries.
The 64-35 vote for passage defied political odds. Many inside and outside of Congress had predicted that legislation so expensive and so complicated would have little chance of advancing in an election year.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called it one of the finest moments in the Senate in recent times in terms of how you pass a bill.
But conservatives in the House, where conservatives are certain to resist the bills costs, particularly for food stamps.
THE FOOD STAMP PROBLEM
Food stamp spending has doubled in the past five years, and beneficiaries have grown from about 20 million to 46 million. The programs budget is now about $80 billion a year, comprising 80 percent of the spending in the bill.
The bill stops lottery winners and more affluent college students from receiving benefits and cracks down on benefit trafficking.
CRAPO: BILL STILL COSTS TOO MUCH
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, voted against the bill, calling it inadequate in terms of reducing the federal debt and deficits. It is a positive step to bring market-oriented reforms in this bill; unfortunately, those reforms do not extend to bottom-line spending that must be reduced, Crapo said.
The $23 billion in projected 10-year savings comes from replacing four farm commodity subsidy programs with one, consolidating 23 conservation programs into 13, and ending several sources of abuse in food stamps. That program is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
The biggest change comes from eliminating direct payments to farmers whether they plant crops or not. The program, which costs about $5 billion a year, has lost much of its support at a time of $1 trillion federal deficits and when farmers in general are prospering. There will be greater reliance on crop insurance and a new program that covers smaller losses on planted crops before crop insurance kicks in.
The bill also prevents farm managers, often wealthy people who may not live or work on a farm, from receiving subsidy payments and gives greater help to fruit and vegetable producers and healthy food programs.
THE SUGAR PROGRAM
The Senate left intact the sugar program that for some 80 years has protected beet and sugarcane growers and sugar refiners by controlling prices and limiting imports.
The program is opposed by consumer groups and food and beverage companies that use sugar. They say it drives up costs and leads to confectioners relocating overseas. Amendments to either phase out or narrow the scope of the sugar program both failed on close votes.
Crapo, co-chairman of the Senate Sweetener Caucus, said last week that the sugar provisions matter both to sugar producers and consumers. He said Idaho sugar producers bring in more than $1 billion in revenue annually to the state.
EPA AERIAL SURVEILLANCE
The Senate also narrowly rejected an amendment by Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., that would have barred the Environmental Protection Agency from all aerial surveillance of agriculture operations.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, voted for the amendment. If your property is going to be searched, you have a right to know about it, Risch said. The EPA has not been willing to provide information to property owners about these flights."
Risch also worries about the storage and use of images captured from these flights. It is unclear if strong standards are in place to prevent their misuse, he said.