The Farm Bill Isn't Finished

Fri, 02/01/2008

In mid-December the Senate passed its version of the farm bill. This legislation must now be reconciled with the House version through a conference. Bread for the World will continue to campaign for reform as the House, Senate and administration negotiate the final version of the farm bill next year. Bread for the World and many religious bodies joined forces with environmental and taxpayer groups to campaign for reform of the farm bill. We have shaken up traditional farm bill politics and made the House and Senate farm bills better than they would have otherwise been. About 300 newspapers have editorialized in favor of reform, and surveys show that most voters now understand that there are serious abuses in the farm bill. On December 14, the Senate passed a problematic farm bill that: * fails to make farm support programs fairer * proposes increases in trade-distorting commodity programs These programs have a negative impact on prices and earning opportunities for poor farmers in the developing world. Savings from much-needed reforms to these programs could be better used to fund nutrition and conservation programs and help U.S. farm and rural families of modest means. A majority of senators voted for two reform amendments no more than $250,000 in annual payments per household and no subsidies to households with incomes above $750,000. But the Senate's leadership caved to a filibuster threat from Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). Because Senate Democratic leaders did not want to be blamed for further delay of the farm bill, they changed the rules to require 60 votes for passage of those three amendments, rather than a simple majority. The Dorgan-Grassley and Klobuchar amendments received the support of a majority of the senators voting, but they were defeated as they fell short of the 60-vote requirement. The best feature of the Senate bill is an increase in food assistance to hungry families, but unfortunately this increase would expire in 2012. This budget gimmick represents a false promise to millions of families who struggle to put food on the table. On the positive side, the Senate bill includes the Hunger-Free Communities Act, which requires the next administration to develop a plan for cutting U.S. hunger and strengthen community anti-hunger coalitions across the nation. The House of Representatives passed its farm bill in July. The House also failed to curtail subsidies and raised support levels for certain crops, though it did not increase them as substantially as the Senate did. On a positive note, the House bill increased funding for: * domestic food assistance; * school meals in developing countries; and * assistance to minority farmers. The House and Senate bills do include good things for hungry people, the environment, rural communities and minority farmers, but the funding for these improvements is not secure. Congress should finance the improvements by capping subsidies to affluent farmers. Important Farm Bill Amendments Supported By Bread For The World: Both the Grassley/Dorgan Amendment and the Klobuchar/Brown/Durbin Amendment called for change based on a moral recognition: commodity payments funded by taxpayers should not be going to multi-millionaires. Particularly not at the expense of farmers of modest means and hungry and poor people. The forces for reform won those votes – Grassley/Dorgan 56-43, and Klobuchar/Brown/Durbin 48-47. But they will not become law because closed-door deals raised the bar for passage to a "supermajority" of 60 votes. A Washington Post editorial of December 14, 2007 asks, "How can a bill backed by a substantial bipartisan majority not pass? Welcome to the wonderful world of agriculture politics…. This episode is a major embarrassment." * Grassley/Dorgan Amendment: Withdrawn: 56-43. This amendment would have capped agricultural commodity payments at $250,000 per household. * Klobuchar/Brown/Durbin amendment: Withdrawn: 48 to 47. This amendment would have reformed the subsidy system to prevent farm couples who clear $750,000 in net farm household income and part-time farm couples (those who earn more than one-third of their income off the farm) who clear $250,000 from receiving subsidies. This provision would have generated some modest savings to redirect into conservation, rural development, healthy foods and energy programs. Lugar/Lautenberg FRESH amendment: Failed. Bread for the World praises 37 senators who voted December 11 for the FRESH Amendment, sponsored by Sens. Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). These elected leaders had the courage to support much-needed reforms to our nation's commodity payment program -- reforms which, if passed, would have saved billions of dollars to invest in nutrition programs, specialty crop programs, critical conservation initiatives and the McGovern-Dole international school feeding program.