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Food fight? Senate debates SNAP, crop insurance

Above: Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow.

The Senate continued to dispose of farm bill amendments Wednesday, rejecting more attempts to change the bill’s food stamp provisions before launching into a crop insurance fight.

The Senate rejected 36-60 an amendment from Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe to turn the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) into a block grant for the states. His effort highlighted the sensitivity surrounding nutrition, which accounts for nearly 80% of spending in the farm bill. SNAP has been a political tool coupled with the farm program, bringing along votes from urban lawmakers, but with unemployment declining, Inhofe questioned the recent increase in SNAP spending.

I can’t find anyone in my state who says ‘This should be a part of a program that would be a charity bill that can be voted on on its own merits, not throwing it in with the farm bill.’ So over the same time period, in the last four years, this has grown. It’s increased by 100%, from the cost being $37 billion to $75 billion. That’s a 100% increase in one program.

Crop insurance also came under fire, with several amendments submitted to limit the program.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin and co-sponsor Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn introduced a bill to cut crop insurance premium subsidies by 15-percent for those farmers with incomes over 750-thousand. Durbin cited the case of one Illinois corn and soybean farmer who received $740,000 in premium subsidies to cover the crops he grew in 18 Illinois counties. Under the Durbin-Coburn plan, his new subsidy would be $629,000.

Alaska Senator Mark Begich and Arizona Senator Jeff Flake discussed their amendment to require public disclosure of information on crop insurance during a news conference. Flake said disclosure would make it possible to understand whether or not some are improperly receiving subsidies.

New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey have offered an amendment to cap crop insurance subsidies at $50,000 a year, a move Shaheen says would only affect about 4% of farmers.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow defended the crop insurance program and the conservation compliance agreement in the Senate bill Wednesday. She urged her colleagues to oppose any amendments that would weaken crop insurance. With the link of crop insurance subsidies to conservation compliance – Stabenow said the more acres that are in crop insurance, the more farmers who will be complying with conservation standard.

“2012 was one of the worst droughts on record,” Stabenow said. “And in the past, when we had situations like that, Congress had to pass ad hoc disaster assistance for those crop farmers. But we didn’t have to do that last year. Because crop insurance works. The only farmers last year who needed disaster assistance were the ones who cannot participate in crop insurance.”

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, a working family farmer, also introduced several amendments.

The first would protect livestock and poultry farmers from having their personal information released by the EPA. The amendment does not prevent the EPA from collecting information about where operations are located or from disclosing information in the aggregate.

Grassley’s second amendment would hold peanut farmers to the same cumulative 50-thousand dollar payment limit that applies to farmers of other crops. In current law – and in the underlying bill – the Senator says peanut farmers can essentially double their farm payments by growing peanuts and another type of crop.

The third amendment offered by the Iowa Senator would create a Special Counsel at USDA charged with analyzing mergers within the food and agricultural sectors in consultation with USDA’s Chief Economist, the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice and the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. The Special Counsel would also investigate and prosecute violations of the Packers and Stockyards Act.