Farmer Lola Raska knows a tough row to hoe when she sees one, which is why after holding the Senate farm bill to high standards, she is ready to reap whatever House lawmakers can sow.
“Primarily we’re looking for them to pass one,” said Raska, Montana Grain Growers executive vice president. “After that, we’ll work out the details.”
Last year, House Republican leaders refused to bring a farm bill to the floor arguing they lacked the votes to get it passed — this after the Senate passed its bipartisan bill fairly easily. The House move left farm states in the lurch, including Montana, where more than $3 billion in annual sales makes agriculture the state’s biggest breadwinner.
Tuesday, House lawmakers prepared again to bring a farm bill to the floor, but with much opposition from both Republicans on the far right opposed to subsidizing agriculture and Democrats objecting to food stamp cuts five times deeper than what the Senate approved two weeks earlier. Cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, would total $20.5 billion over the next decade.
“Mr. Speaker, one of the top requests I hear from Montanans is ‘Congress needs to pass a long-term Farm Bill.’ ” said Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., addressing the House. “One in five Montana jobs rely on agriculture and it is past time for passage of a five-year farm bill that protects and promotes Montana’s number-one industry.”
Daines, like many Republican proponents, argues that the 2013 farm bill, forecast to cost $1 trillion in spending over the next decade, is a money saver.
The House version of the farm bill, coupled with sequestration, saves taxpayers $40 billion over current spending on farming, forestry, conservation, research and rural development, as well as nutrition subsidies for the poor.
Nutrition subsidies take the biggest hit, but also account for roughly 80 percent of farm bill spending.
Montanans, like Congress, also are fractured over the bill. Conservatives in Daines’ party say the farm bill is a tome of government waste.
“They should not call it the farm bill. They should call it the pork bill,” said Joe Balyeat, Americans For Prosperity Montana state director. “There’s way too much waste.”
AFP Montana last month circulated an editorial to state newspapers blasting the farm bill for ignoring food stamp fraud and replacing bad farm subsidies with ones likely to cost taxpayers even more in the long run.
Daines echoed AFP Montana’s concerns about food stamp fraud on Tuesday.
“It’s critical that we enact real reforms to this program to ensure that SNAP funds are targeted to those who are truly in need,” Daines told The Gazette. “These reforms aren’t designed to lower the number of people who are eligible or not for SNAP. They are about making sure that the system is working effectively and efficiently. Those are the criteria that I am supportive of.”
Specifically, Republicans want to end SNAP policies used by President Barack Obama’s administration to make food stamps easier to get. The number of Americans on SNAP increased after the federal government approved eligibility for millions of Americans who already qualified for other specific low-income subsidies. That method, known as categorical eligibility, angers Republicans who want to return to using income and resource testing for determining who qualifies.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 1.8 million Americans would no longer qualify for food stamps if categorical eligibility ended.
Wildlife advocates balk at House plans not to require farmers to meet certain environmental standards in order to fully qualify for federally subsidized crop insurance. Farmers used to have to meet such requirements to receive direct government payments, but those payments were eliminated in the new farm bill. Senate lawmakers attached the requirements to subsidized crop insurance. The House didn’t.
“When a farmer is paying into a crop insurance pool, they should not be told by the government how to care for their land,” Daines said. “I believe that doing so is an infringement on their private property rights.”
The Montana Grain Growers side with Daines on the conservation requirements, while the Montana Farmer’s Union sides with wildlife groups.
Daines, like Montana farmers, is looking toward seeing the House and Senate versions of the farm bill sent to conference committee where differences can be worked out. He favors some Senate proposals, like allowing revenue loss subsidies to be triggered by farm-level losses rather than losses countywide. The difference matters in Montana, where counties are large enough that some farmers experience disaster while others experience none.
Daines also supports the federal sugar program that limits foreign sugar imports as a means of stabilizing prices for sugar beet and sugarcane farmers.