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Farm bill now in House's court


For the Capital Press

WASHINGTON -- The Senate passed the farm bill on June 10, putting pressure on the House of Representatives to pass its version quickly.

"We need to get this done. It has to be done by Sept. 30," when the current farm bill extension expires, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said.

In a veiled reference to the fact that the Senate passed a bill last year and the House did not, Stabenow added, "We've now done our part again."

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday he expects the House to take up the farm bill this month and that he will support the version the House Agriculture Committee passed. He had opposed similar legislation last year.

The Senate's bill, which costs almost $100 billion annually, would eliminate subsidies that are paid to farmers whether they farm or not. All told, it would save about $2.4 billion a year on the farm and nutrition programs, including across-the-board cuts that took effect earlier this year. It also expands government subsidies for crop insurance, rice and peanuts while making small cuts to food stamps.

Senators looking to pare back subsidies did win one victory in the Senate, an amendment to reduce the government's share of crop insurance premiums for farmers with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said their amendment would affect about 20,000 farmers.

Stabenow argued the amendment would result in fewer people buying insurance and undercut a separate provision in the bill that would require farmers buying crop insurance to comply with certain environmental standards on their land.

Currently the government pays for an average 62 percent of crop insurance premiums and also subsidizes the companies that sell the insurance. The overall bill expands insurance for many crops and creates a program to compensate farmers for smaller, or "shallow," revenue losses before the paid insurance kicks in.

The crop insurance expansion is likely to benefit Midwestern corn and soybean farmers, who use crop insurance more than other farmers. The bill would also boost subsidies for Southern rice and peanut farmers, lowering the threshold for those farms to receive government help.

The help for rice and peanuts was not in last year's bill but was added this year after the agriculture panel gained a new top Republican, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran. Critics, including the former top Republican on the committee, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, said the new policy could guarantee that the rice and peanut farmers' profits are average or above average.

"This bill looks in the rearview mirror for outdated policies that cause the farmer to plant for the government and not the market," Roberts said in a news release. "We have seen the effects of this interference before with extended periods of depressed prices and excess supplies. In addition, several of these target prices are set so high that they may exceed a producer's full cost of production."

Stabenow said she would have to consider how the House handles cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP or food stamps, but that she opposes the $20.5 billion cut over 10 years that the House bill includes. The Senate bill cuts food stamps by $4 billion over 10 years.

The Senate bill also would:

* Overhaul dairy policy by creating a new insurance program for dairy producers, eliminating other dairy subsidies and price supports. The new policy includes a market stabilization program that could dictate production cuts when oversupply drives down prices. The program faced little opposition in the Senate.

* Make modest changes to the way international food aid is delivered, a much scaled-back version of an overhaul proposed by President Barack Obama earlier this year. Senators adopted an amendment that would slightly boost dollars to buy locally grown food close to needy areas abroad. Currently, most food aid is grown in the United States and shipped to developing countries, an approach the Obama administration says is inefficient but that has support among farm-state members in Congress.

* Consolidate programs to protect environmentally sensitive land and reduce spending on those programs.

* Expand Agriculture Department efforts to prevent illegal trafficking of food stamp benefits.

A wide range of farm and conservation groups praised the Senate bill and urged House action.

The AP contributed to this story.


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