The Senate is ready to move forward on its farm bill (S 3240) next Tuesday, debating the first of the many amendments filed this week. My colleague Ellyn Ferguson counted about 60 by late afternoon Thursday. They include such issues as hemp (legalizing its production) and catfish (repealing a law aimed at curbing imports), but the big-ticket debates, of course, will involve crop insurance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
In the Statement of Administration Policy (pdf) issued Thursday, the Obama administration weighed in on both crop insurance and SNAP, but pointedly didn’t offer any specifics other than to say the crop insurance program should be cut and SNAP should be protected. A more critical statement would have provided a boost for New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who plans to offer an amendment that would restore funding for SNAP and take the $4.5 billion from the crop insurance program, Ferguson reports. “The administration stated clearly its strong support for the SNAP program,” said Gillibrand spokeswoman Bethany Lesser. “But it’s up to her colleagues to vote for protecting hungry kids over government subsidies for insurance companies that are already making huge profits.”
Stabenow Likes SAP, Defends SNAP Reduction. Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is pleased with the administration’s support for the overall bill. She says she shares Gillibrand’s concerns about the bill’s cut to SNAP but defended the provision that would tighten rules that 14 states use to increase SNAP benefits. Stabenow said that “in the political environment in which we are living, it is incredibly important that we do everything possible to address the integrity of the food program. We’re trying to do that in a careful way.”
Senate Budget’s ranking Republican, Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., doesn’t think the bill goes nearly far enough in cutting SNAP, which has doubled in cost under President Obama. Sessions has filed four amendments (pdf) that, among other things, would eliminate incentives for states to add recipients to the food aid program and would end states’ use of categorical eligibility that automatically qualifies people for SNAP if they receive assistance from other low-income programs. A GAO report found that some states have greatly broadened the eligibility requirements. The recession is only partially to blame for ballooning SNAP enrollment, according to Sessions, who faults USDA for encouraging states to grow the rolls. It’s time to “ask ourselves, is this good policy for America,” he said.
Crop Insurance Targeted. The administration’s SAP called on the Senate to cut crop insurance in line with its 2013 budget proposals, which would reduce premium subsidies and payments to insurance companies to save more than $7 billion. Stabenow and her committee’s ranking Republican, Pat Roberts of Kansas, have made clear they’ll resist such cuts. Still, an amendment by Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., to force farmers with adjusted gross incomes over $750,000 a year to pay higher premiums is likely to get traction. That proposal, which would save $1.2 billion over 10 years, will probably be palatable to more senators, and harder for the farm lobby to argue against, than a second amendment by Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., that would cap premium subsidies across the board at $40,000 per policyholder, saving $5.2 billion.
Reid Wants to Limit Amendments, Robert Says. Roberts has been saying the Senate wants to finish the bill next week. (Good luck with that, given the many issues on the table.) He says the process is somewhat different this time because Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wanted a pre-defined list of amendments, CQ’s Niels Lesniewski tells me.” Most of the farm bills I’ve been associated with — I’ve been through seven — take about a week and a half [to] two weeks, considering over 100 amendments,” Roberts said. “The leader does not want to take that amount of time and wants to limit amendments, especially those that are not germane. And so, we’re now going over the amendments.”
One of the non-germane amendments may be a proposal by Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that would allow employers more flexibility to increase employee wages when operating under a union contract. Rubio acknowledged that the amendment does not really belong on the farm bill, but said that Republicans need to take opportunities to offer amendments when they have the chance. “There are very few bills around here that are actually going to pass, so you’ve got to put it on wherever you can get it,” he said.
Farm Bill Would Fund Geese Control at JFK. Congress may intervene in a dispute over whether USDA should be involved in killing Canada geese that threaten aircraft in the New York area, reports CQ’s Lesniewski. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., wrote a provision in the farm bill (S 3240) that would direct the USDA to remove Canada geese from a federal wildlife preserve near John F. Kennedy International Airport. The issue of bird strikes gained national attention in 2009 when U.S. Airways Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III ditched a commercial aircraft into the Hudson River with no fatalities. USDA has removed geese from property owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the area’s airports and donated the birds to local food banks. But environmentalists have questioned the efficacy of killing the geese to reduce bird strikes by aircraft at the Jamaica Bay wildlife reserve near JFK, so USDA has been reluctant to get involved. A group called GooseWatch NYC has posted an online petition opposing the stand-alone version (S 2377) of Gillibrand’s farm bill provision.
Bills on Food Aid, Russia Advance. House Foreign Affairs has approved a bill intended to improve the quality of U.S. food aid and another measure that’s considered a legislative prerequisite to normalizing trade relations with Russia, reports CQ’s Matt Fuller. The aid bill (HR 4141) would require USAID to address the quality of food provided to young children, pregnant women and other vulnerable groups. The measure was named after the late Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., who died in March. The bill “honors and builds on the tireless efforts of our late colleague to protect the world’s most vulnerable populations,” said the panel’s ranking Democrat, Howard Berman, D-Calif. The Russia-related bill (HR 4405) would allow Treasury to freeze the assets of Russian officials responsible for the death of jailed lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky. Supporters of the bill link its passage to lifting of the Jackson-Vanik restrictions that block the normalization of trade relations with Russia, a move expected to boost U.S. agricultural exports.
Food Prices Off Sharply. Global food prices fell sharply last month to the lowest level since Setepmber 2011, 14 percent below the peak in February 2011, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. FAO’s food price index, which measures a basket of commodities, dropped 4 percent in May, led by price declines for vegetable oils, dairy products and sugar. FAO attributed the overall drop in prices to forecasts of strong commodity supplies, the strengthening of the U.S. dollar and global economic uncertainties. “Crop prices have come down sharply from their peak level but they remain still high and vulnerable due to risks related to weather conditions in the critical growing months ahead,” said FAO grain analyst Abdolreza Abbassian. FAO is forecasting a 3.2 percent increase in cereal grain supplies this year, largely due to the bumper corn crop expected in the United States.
Lawmakers Say Import Ban Needs Tuning. A House panel wants to limit prosecutions of companies and individuals that are knowingly involved in illegal plant importation activities, reports CQ’s Jacqueline Linnane. The House Natural Resources Committee on Thursday approved 24-19 an amended bill (HR 3210) that would overhaul portions of the Lacey Act (PL 97-79), a century-old law to combat trafficking in illegally harvested plants. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., introduced the bill in response to a raid last year on Tennessee-based Gibson Guitar, which uses ebony products shipped from India. The bill’s changes would apply to firms that buy illegal wood and would limit the application of current regulations to plant products imported before May 22, 2008. Republicans say people with products made from plant materials, such as musical instruments, are being unfairly punished. Democrats on the panel wanted to leave the current regulations in place.
Hunger, Grain Surplus Vex India’s Policymakers. One of every five people in India is malnourished even though the country has the biggest surplus of grain of any country except China, The New York Times reports. The blame is put on corruption, mismanagement and waste in India’s food distribution programs. Policy changes under consideration would allow the poor to buy wheat and rice at lower prices and double the number of people served by food programs to two-thirds of the population. “The reason we are facing this problem is our refusal to distribute the grain that we buy from farmers to the people who need it,” said Biraj Patniak, a lawyer who advises India’s Supreme Court on food issues. “The only place that this grain deserves to be is in the stomachs of the people who are hungry.” Critics say the extra spending being planned could worsen the corruption that now plagues the food system unless it’s fundamentally overhauled.