By Ron Nixonjan
WASHINGTON — House and Senate negotiators on Monday agreed on a new five-year farm bill that will eliminate or consolidate dozens of agriculture subsidy programs, expand government-subsidized crop insurance and cut about $8 billion from the food stamp program over the next decade.
The bipartisan agreement, two years after lawmakers began work on the nearly $1 trillion bill, is a major step forward in reauthorizing hundreds of farm and nutrition programs that must be renewed every five years. And, at least for now, it brings an end to the partisan fighting that stalled two previous attempts to pass the legislation. The bill would reduce spending by about $23 billion over the next 10 years.
The House is expected to vote on the measure on Wednesday. It is unclear when the Senate will take up the legislation. Many Senate Democrats are likely to be unhappy with the food stamps measure, which cuts roughly twice as much as senators approved in May.
Yet the food stamp cuts may not be large enough to appease House conservatives, who in June helped defeat a bill backed by Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio that would have cut $20 billion from the program. The House eventually passed a bill covering only nutrition programs that would have sliced nearly $40 billion from food stamps.
The negotiations were headed by the leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, Rep. Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
The deal “puts us on the verge of enacting a five-year farm bill that saves taxpayers billions, eliminates unnecessary subsidies, creates a more effective farm safety net and helps farmers and businesses create jobs,” Stabenow said.
Lucas said, “I am proud of our efforts to finish a farm bill conference report with significant savings and reforms.”
Farmers also welcomed the news of the agreement.
“The bill is a compromise,” said Ray Gaesser, an Iowa farmer who is president of the American Soybean Association. “It ensures the continued success of American agriculture, and we encourage both the House and the Senate to pass it quickly.”
Antihunger advocates criticized the agreement.
“They are gutting a program to provide food for hungry people to pay for corporate welfare,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.
The new bill would make the most significant changes to farm programs in decades. It would create a new milk insurance subsidy program and place a cap on farm subsidy payments.
The full details of the bill have not been released.
It is expected to leave in place the federal sugar program, which is a combination of import restrictions and production quotas that are intended to keep the price of American sugar well above that available on the world market and which has long been criticized by candy makers and bakers.
It also is expected to keep a controversial catfish-inspection office at the Agriculture Department that is supported by Southern lawmakers and the catfish industry, but has faced opposition because it duplicates a similar program at the Food and Drug Administration. Some countries that export catfish, like Vietnam, say the program protects American catfish producers.
Among the most significant changes to farm subsidies would be the elimination of so-called direct payments. They have been in place since 1996, cost about $5 billion a year and go to farmers and landowners whether they grow crops or not.
Some of the savings from the elimination of direct payments will be added to the crop insurance program, in which the federal government covers losses from poor yields or declines in revenue. It also has its critics.
“It’s a classic bait-and-switch proposal to protect farm subsidies,” said Vincent H. Smith, a professor of farm economics at Montana State University and a longtime critic of agriculture subsidies. “They’ve eliminated the politically toxic direct payments program and added the money to a program that will provide farmers with even larger subsidies.”
Antihunger advocates like Berg say crop insurance expansion would come at the expense of millions of people who depend on food stamps.
The farm bill would avoid some of the drastic measures that were part of the House bill, like work requirements and drug testing for food stamp recipients, but antihunger advocates said the $8 billion cut would reduce benefits by about $90 a month for 850,000 households. The bill does contain financing for a pilot program aimed at encouraging recipients who can work to find work. Nearly two million people will be affected by the cuts.
“This vote is a tragic, heartless and economically counterproductive departure from America’s bipartisan history of fighting hunger,” Berg said. “Members of Congress who voted for this should be ashamed.”