Tuesday night the Senate began official consideration of the farm bill, with votes on whether or not to table two amendments of the nearly 300 amendments to the bill. Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said she is working with leaders to reach an agreement on debating only germane amendments and remained “confident” the Senate can prevail in getting a bill passed.
During the opening of debate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., performed a procedural move called “filling the tree,” or taking up all the amendment space, to keep Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky’s non-germane amendment about aid to Pakistan from being considered.
In a call with media Wednesday morning, Stabenow noted that she and Sen. Pat Roberts, R- Kan., are “putting together the final universe of amendments we’ll be addressing,” and Stabenow again expressed optimism about an agreement on amendments Thursday after Reid delayed debate on the bill until next week.
Many amendments filed are non-germane to the farm bill. “We are in a spot where those who want to obstruct or don’t support what we’re doing have the ability to throw some sand in the gears. None of this is surprising,” Stabenow said, adding it is a normal part of legislative negotiations.
Wednesday the Senate cast votes on whether to table two amendments, both of which will not move forward.
The first was an amendment from Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire which would repeal the current U.S. sugar policy. The amendment would have ended all price supports for the sweetener by 2015 and end the quota on imports.
The other amendment which saw a vote was Paul’s proposal of the tea party-led effort to cut nutrition funding almost in half and shift control back to the states, similar to a proposal on the House side.
Eye on amendments
The agricultural community is closely watching the many amendments being proposed to the bill which will impact agriculture.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., proposed an amendment to the farm bill that would mandate housing protocols for egg-laying hens, which is identical language of the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012 introduced earlier this spring in the Senate and House.
The amendment is opposed by others in the livestock industry. Tom Talbot, National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. chairman, claimed, “This legislation opens up Pandora’s Box on Capitol Hill. While this bill currently only applies to the egg industry, it’s not a far stretch to see it applied to all animal agriculture.”
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., proposed an amendment that would make checkoffs voluntary. Agricultural stakeholder groups from all corners of the industry expressed firm opposition to the amendment, stating the move would “negatively impact” these programs approved by producers.
“With oversight provided by USDA, producers have taken it upon themselves to fund over $905 million of research, promotion and consumer education programs annually through checkoff activities at no cost to the federal government,” stated the groups in the letter. “In these austere budgetary times, our producers should be commended and certainly deserve the support of Congress.”
Stabenow confirmed that Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., are working on an amendment that would add target prices to the commodity title, an idea gaining more traction on the House side and is more palatable to southern producers. She noted that she hasn’t seen any specific proposal, but welcomed the ideas, and said the role Conrad is playing is “very important and constructive” in getting some specific budget scores on its impact.
Many attempts have also been made to change the crop insurance program. House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said a lot of changes in crop insurance have been made since the 2008 Farm Bill, but there is no hard data yet on the impact of those changes. “I don’t think we should be making any changes in crop insurance until we get hard data back on what happened with the SRA [Standard Reinsurance Agreement], what happened with the re-rating and so forth,” he said. “I think we’ll be able to defeat those attempts to muck up the crop insurance system.”
Peterson said in an AgriTalk radio interview that he’s optimistic a bill can get done. He expects the Senate ag leaders to pare down the amendments to “what’s real and get them to a manageable level.” He added that the House will get its version out of committee, and it will be a “tough fight on the floor.”
(An audio replay of the AgriTalk interview with Peterson is available here (MP3- 12 min.), while an unofficial FarmPolicy.com transcript of the discussion can be read here).