US Department of Agriculture head Tom Vilsack is pressing the House of Representatives to pass the farm bill that recently was approved by the Senate. The farm bill, a monster piece of legislation that is handled by Congress twice in each decade, is the basis of US agricultural policy, setting priorities for USDA research grants, crop and farm subsidies, food stamp and other food security program budgets, and disaster insurance coverage for farmers and ranchers.
Vilsack warned that without a bill, current disaster coverage provisions which are set to expire on September 30, 2012, would not be renewed, potentially leaving farmers and ranchers without government-provided coverage in the event of a natural disaster, crop failure, or other catastrophe. Republican leaders in the House express concern over the size of the farm bill (more than $500 billion) and fear that they might not have the votes to pass the omnibus spending measure in the current deficit-wary environment. The measure passed in the Senate by 64-35.
If the bill does not pass, an extension to the previous bill would be a likely compromise measure, but such an extension would not automatically extend disaster coverage. The new bill ends direct payments to farmers who do not plant any crops, redesigns a number of existing crop support programs, and is expected to cut the Federal deficit by modest amount over the next ten years.
House conservatives want cuts in the food stamp program, which by itself makes up about 80 percent of the farm bill’s $100 billion in annual spending. The Senate bill cuts about $4 billion over ten years, but Republicans want a larger cut in a program which has become controversial because of efforts by the Obama administration to actively recruit lower-income Americans onto the food stamp rolls. Republicans want the cuts increased to $14 or $15 billion over ten years.
An Agriculture committee vote on the bill is scheduled for July 11, 2012, and the Republican chair of the committee says he will try to get floor time for the bill following that meeting. Some GOP leaders want the bill delayed because if it is not enacted quickly it would likely become part of the year-end negotiations on budgetary issues, and at that time larger cuts would be easier to win at the bargaining table.