Montana farm groups leery of plan to split up farm bill

2013-07-03T21:00:00Z 2013-07-04T06:17:05Z Montana farm groups leery of plan to split up farm billBy TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

As House Republicans consider slicing up their failed 2013 farm bill and voting on its parts separately, Montana agriculture groups are saying no thanks.

Joining more than 500 ag groups, farm banks and commodity traders, Montana farmers this week wrote to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, cautioning that cutting nutrition subsidies for America’s poor out of the farm bill would be a bad move.

Farm and nutrition subsidies have been conjoined in the farm bill since 1977, largely to marry the interests of farm country lawmakers with urban lawmakers whose constituents use food stamps. As a result, five-year safety nets for both farmers and America’s poor routinely passed.

But last month, for the first time in history, the farm bill failed in the House on a 195-234 vote. House Democrats rejected the bill after a last-minute amendment making it harder for poor people to receive nutrition assistance was passed by Republicans.

The farm bill spends roughly $500 billion over five years, with nutrition programs receiving 80 percent of the money.

Shortly thereafter, Republican leaders began talking about slicing up the bill, possibly winning over GOP lawmakers who rejected the farm bill last month because of food programs for the poor.

The move might also help Republicans pass deeper cuts to nutrition subsidies, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, without support from the Democratic minority.

With 233 lawmakers, the House Republican majority has the potential to pass bills on its own but has failed to on multiple occasions when far-right conservatives held out for deeper cuts.

“If you split off SNAP from farmers, the farm bill will not get passed,” said Alan Merrill, Montana Farmers Union president.

Both nutrition and farm subsidies need to pass out of the House so they can be reconciled with the Senate version of the farm bill, which passed with bipartisan support in early June.

Merrill’s other concern is that if the parts of the split farm bill did pass they might both be cut so deeply that neither farmers nor the poor will helped.

There’s a lot hinging on a new farm bill being passed, said Lola Raska, Montana Grain Growers Association executive vice president.

In addition to SNAP and federally subsidized crop insurance, there are loan programs for beginning farmers and programs promoting the organic food industry, not to mention agriculture research and rural development programs. The farm bill also contains federal government’s largest land and wildlife conservation programs.

Farm issues are so foreign to urban lawmakers that it's always been easier to win their votes with nutrition issues than to educate them on things like crop insurance, Raska said.

This is the second year the Senate has passed a farm bill while the House has failed to do so. At the beginning of the year, a short-term farm bill was passed to see the agriculture economy through the Congressional year, which ends Sept. 30. Farmers and the banks that give them operating loans each planting season say a five-year bill is necessary to give the industry economic stability.

In addition to MFU and the Montana Grain Growers cautioning Boehner, the region’s largest ag lender, Northwest Farm Credit Services, also signed on.

Slicing nutrition programs from the farm bill might be necessary to get the farm bill passed, said U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who was visiting Billings during the Fourth of July congressional break. Other farm-state Republicans returned home telling constituents a July farm bill vote was likely.

Boehner told the Washington Post that a path ahead for the farm bill hasn’t been decided.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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