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Senate sends farm bill to Obama

February 4, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress has given its final approval to a sweeping five-year U.S. farm bill that provides food for the needy and subsidies for farmers.

Ending years of political battles, the Senate on Tuesday sent the measure to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it. The Senate passed the bill 68-32.

The bill provides a financial cushion for farmers who face unpredictable weather and market conditions. But the bulk of its nearly $100 billion-a-year cost is for the food stamp program, which aids 1 in 7 Americans allowing them to buy nutritious yet low-cost food.

House Republicans had hoped to trim the bill’s costs, pointing to a booming agriculture sector in recent years and saying the now $80 billion-a-year food stamp program has spiraled out of control. Partisan disagreements stalled the bill for more than two years, but conservatives were eventually outnumbered as the Democratic Senate, the White House and a still-powerful bipartisan coalition of farm-state lawmakers pushed to get the bill done.

The final compromise bill would get rid of controversial subsidies known as direct payments, which are paid to farmers whether they farm or not. But most of that program’s $4.5 billion annual cost was redirected into new, more politically defensible subsidies that would kick in when a farmer has losses. The food stamp program was cut about 1 percent; the House had pushed for five times that much.

Direct subsidies to U.S. farmers and other contentious agricultural issues have long bedeviled attempts to expand free trade across the Atlantic, leading the United States and European Union to file complaints against the other before the World Trade Organization, an arbitrator in trade disputes. While the U.S. protests EU restrictions that keep American farm products out of Europe, Europeans have long wanted the U.S. to reduce agricultural subsidies. Despite the disputes, the U.S. and EU have been working on creating the world’s largest free trade agreement.

The bill going to Obama’s desk would save around $1.65 billion annually overall. But critics said that under the new subsidies, those savings could disappear if the weather or the market doesn’t cooperate.

The White House has been mostly quiet as Congress worked out its differences on the bill. But in a statement after the vote, Obama said the bill would reduce the deficit “without gutting the vital assistance programs millions of hardworking Americans count on to help put food on the table for their families.”

He said the farm bill isn’t perfect, “but on the whole, it will make a positive difference not only for the rural economies that grow America’s food, but for our nation.”

Obama praised the bill for getting rid of controversial subsidies known as direct payments, which are paid to farmers whether they farm or not. Most of that program’s $4.5 billion annual cost was redirected into new, more politically defensible subsidies that would kick in when a farmer has losses

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, said before the bill passed that she and her House counterpart, Rep. Frank Lucas, a Republican, tried to write a bill that would work for all regions of the country, “from traditional row crops, to specialty crops like fruits and vegetables, to livestock, to organics, to local food systems.”

Those incentives scattered throughout the bill — a boost for crop insurance popular in the Midwest and higher subsidies for Southern rice and peanut farmers, for example — helped the bill pass easily in the House last week, 251-166. House leaders who had objected to the legislation since 2011 softened their disapproval as they sought to put the long-stalled bill behind them. Leaders in both parties also have hoped to bolster rural candidates in November’s congressional elections.

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Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mcjalonick

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