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US House gives approval to new farm bill

The U.S. House passed a new farm bill Wednesday; bill now moves to the Senate where passage is also expected. (File photo)

By Eric Beech

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives passed a comprehensive farm bill on Wednesday that cuts payments for food stamps by about 1 percent and ends a direct subsidy to farmers, while expanding governmentbacked crop insurance programs.

After months of negotiations and criticism from both sides of the political spectrum the measure passed easily, by 251 votes to 166, with 162 Republicans joining 89 Democrats in favor. The bill, which is supposed to be passed every five years, is more than a year overdue after congressional negotiators struggled to forge a compromise.

Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D.  Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., praised the bill, voting in favor of it, and claimed credit for much of what ended up in it.

“We’ve got our fingerprints all over this farm bill,” Noem told reporters Wednesday. Noem was a member of the conference committee that worked out differences between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill.

She cited the establishment of a permanent Office of Tribal Relations within USDA and livestock disaster assistance as major accomplishments.

“This will go a long way towards helping our tribes to participate at the same level everyone else has been able to,” Noem said. “I’m thrilled that the language from my livestock disaster bill was included.”

Livestock disaster assistance will be retroactive to 2012 to cover both the October storm Atlas and the drought of 2012, Noem said. Reimbursement rates for lost cattle will be 75 percent of an animal’s value the day before it died, with caps set at $125,000 for a single rancher and $250,000 for a married couple.

In addition, Noem touted the end of direct payments to farmers and an expanded crop insurance program, coupled with the “Protect Our Prairies” conservation program designed to discourage plowing under virgin ground in certain parts of the country.

A vote in the Democratic-run Senate could come as early as today and the bill is expected to pass, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow told reporters on Wednesday.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.  U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., remains undecided about whether he will vote for this version of the farm bill after he voted against the bill passed by the Senate early in the summer of 2013. While he likes the livestock disaster provisions, much of the conservation section and other parts, he does not think much of the reforms to farm subsidy programs.

“This is a very problematic, flawed commodity title. Even though it eliminates direct payments, this new program with high target prices is going to end up making payments on certain crops every year,” Thune said.

Thune said he fears retaliation from other countries through the World Trade Organization and called the bill “a throwback to a previous era.”

“I had hoped this would include 21st-century agriculture policy for 21st-century production. This fails to meet that test,” Thune said.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama would sign the legislation. The wide-ranging legislation affects about 16 million jobs in the country’s agricultural sector and can have an impact on the business landscape for major agricultural companies.

“This bill eliminates unnecessary subsidies, creates a more effective farm safety-net and strengthens our commitment to conservation of land and water,” Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, said in a statement.

Stabenow was on the House floor on Wednesday and was seen hugging some members on the House floor after the vote.

The agriculture committees say the bill will save about $23 billion over 10 years, compared with current funding — less than many conservative Republicans had hoped for. The Congressional Budget Office, using a different measurement, has estimated savings of $16.6 billion over a decade.

“All Americans stand to benefit in some way from this farm bill,” House Speaker John Boehner said after the vote.

“This is an improvement over current law, and there are no earmarks.”

About $8 billion in savings over 10 years comes from cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

That was well below the $40 billion cut advocated by the Republican-led House, which would have been the largest reduction in a generation, but it was still double the amount originally supported by Senate Democrats.

Liberal lawmakers decried the cut of about 1 percent to the safety net program, which goes to about 47 million low-income people to buy food and accounts for more than three-quarters of the farm bill’s spending.

“This bill will make hunger worse in America,” Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said on the House floor.

Conservative pressure

With congressional elections looming in November, Obama has highlighted social safety-net programs such as food stamps and unemployment insurance as a way to combat the widening income gap in the United States.

Conservative pressure groups Heritage Action and Club for Growth said the bill was too expensive and had urged a “no” vote. The groups said they would include the results in their scorecards of members’ voting records for 2014.

The last farm bill, which passed in 2008, expired in September after being extended for one year while negotiators ironed out differences between measures approved in the House and Senate.

The legislation ends so-called direct payment subsidies, which for years have been doled out to farmers and landowners — to the tune of some $5 billion a year — regardless of whether there is a need for support and whether they actually grew crops.

Instead, agriculture insurance programs would be expanded to help producers manage risk. The bill also would establish permanent disaster assistance for livestock producers.

“We are particularly pleased with provisions to provide risk management to fruit and vegetable farmers and to support livestock farmers during disasters,” the American Farm Bureau Federation said in a statement.

-The Daily Republic contributed to this report.

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