The U.S. House failed to pass a sweeping five-year farm bill with sharp cuts to food stamps, setting the stage for an uphill fight in Congress to craft a new law.
The Republican-led House soundly rejected a $500 billion measure by a vote of 195-234, failing to muster enough support from Democrats and Republicans concerned over the size of the cuts to the country's popular food stamp program.
Congress failed to pass a bill last year after GOP leaders in the House were reluctant to call for a vote because they did not think they had the 218 votes necessary to pass a new farm legislation ahead of November elections. Lawmakers were forced to extend the old farm law through Sept. 30.
The Senate bill would collectively reduce spending by a net of about $24 billion over 10 years, compared with about $38 billion during the same period in the House bill with almost half of the savings coming from a reduction in food stamp spending — the first major overhaul to the program since 1996.
The Senate and House farm bills are largely similar when it comes to farm policy issues, with both measures streamlining conservation programs, expanding the federally subsidized crop insurance program and slashing subsidy payments — including the elimination of the $5 billion a year in direct payments doled out to farmers regardless of whether they grow crops. In a bid to help Southern growers who depend on direct payments, each bill would set higher support prices for rice and peanut farmers, meaning growers would see subsidy payments kick in sooner.
But a significant divide exists between the two chambers in the scope of proposed cuts to the country's food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, that will likely continue to be a sticking point in determining whether the farm bill passes.
The National Wildlife Federation said the House version of the Farm Bill would have created a new loophole in a longstanding requirement that farmers who receive taxpayer subsidies refrain from draining wetlands or farming erosion-prone soils without a conservation plan.
The federation said the bill failed to extend these protections to crop insurance premium subsidies, the largest subsidy farmers receive, possibly leading to the draining of 1.5 to 3.3 million acres of wetlands and greatly increased soil erosion and nutrient pollution into lakes, streams, rivers and coastal waters.
NWF also says major agricultural groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Corn Growers Alliance, along with fiscal groups supported closing the loophole.
“It’s critical to enact a 5-year farm bill this year that protects conservation,” says Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the federation. “The NWF will continue to fight for a farm bill that includes a link between conservation compliance and crop insurance, and a National Sodsaver program.”
Here’s a sampling of statements issued Thursday from various farm groups:
• “Today’s failure leaves the entire food and agriculture sector in the lurch. Once again, the nation’s soybean farmers and the 23 million Americans whose jobs depend on agriculture are left holding the bag,” says ASA President Danny Murphy, a soybean farmer from Canton, Miss. “It is incumbent on both Republicans and Democrats to find a way forward for American agriculture.”
• “The National Corn Growers Association is extremely disappointed to see the House of Representatives fail to pass the 2013 farm bill, says National Corn Growers Association President Pam Johnson. “Up to the last minute, our organization has actively and consistently called for passage of the legislation. We will be engaged in all efforts needed to secure passage in the House and bring the bill to Conference.”
• “With today’s failure to pass a farm bill, the House has let down rural America,” says National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson. “We’re deeply disappointed that the House voted against the best interests of family farmers and rural America.”
While the Senate has approved cuts of about $400 million a year and the House has a reduction of more than $2 billion annually, Republicans have pushed for even deeper cuts while Democrats have argued that a major spending reduction would hurt the 48 million Americans who depend on the program. The pull from both parties siphoned off votes in the House bill, dooming its passage Thursday. Opponents of trimming food stamps have said millions of American senior citizens, people with disabilities, children or working moms and dads of those kids would no longer be able to participate in the popular program.
"The number in the bill is workable. It is something we can achieve," said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. "It is something that I believe, and we don't all see eye to eye on this ... will still allow those folks who are qualified under federal law to receive the help they need, they deserve."
Republican leaders blamed Democrats for not providing enough votes to pass the bill over the objections of conservative Republicans. Only 24 Democrats voted in favor of the legislation after many said the food stamp cuts could remove as many as 2 million needy recipients from the rolls. The addition of the optional state work requirements by an amendment just before final passage turned away any remaining Democratic votes the bill's supporters may have had.
Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said the work requirements, along with another vote that scuttled a proposed dairy overhaul, turned too many lawmakers against the measure.
"Our people didn't know this was coming," Peterson said after the vote.