WASHINGTON – The Senate on Tuesday began plowing through 73 amendments to a $500 billion bill that will set farm policy and fund the food stamp program over the next five years. One of its first votes was to reject a proposal to trim food stamp spending.
The farm bill, one of the last major pieces of legislation that could clear Congress before the election, carries out major changes to the federal safety net for farmers, replacing their direct payments, even when they don't plant crops, with greater emphasis on crop insurance and a new program to protect farmers from revenue losses.
The Senate is expected to vote on all the amendments and pass the bill by the end of the week. It then goes to the House, where it could run into resistance from fiscal conservatives.
An early amendment in the Senate dealt with the price of the food stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which now totals $80 billion a year, about 80 percent of the bill's spending. Food stamp rolls have doubled over the last eight years to 46 million people, driven by the recession.
The Democratic-led Senate defeated 56-43 a proposal by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., that would have restored strict asset tests for food stamp eligibility. Households with gross incomes less than 130 percent of the poverty level and liquid assets below $2,000, or $3,250 for households with elderly or disabled people, qualify for food stamps. But Sessions says the asset test is widely ignored by states that allow the asset limit to be exceeded if a person receives other welfare benefits. He said his amendment would have saved taxpayers $11 billion over 10 years.
A second Sessions amendment, to prevent states from getting bonuses for increasing registration of food stamp recipients, was also defeated.
The base bill does save $4.5 billion over 10 years by ending another practice by some 15 states of giving low-income people as little as $1 dollar a year in home heating assistance, even when they don't have heating bills, in order to make them eligible for increased food stamp benefits.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., sought to rescind those savings, saying the reduction would result in half-a-million households losing an average $90 in monthly food benefits, but her amendment went down 66-33. Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the heating assistance loophole was "undermining the integrity of the program."
Sessions had proposed another amendment that would have gone further in cracking down on the heating assistance practice, but it was among more than 200 that were not allowed in a deal on proceeding with the legislation reached by the two parties Monday.
Among the amendments that will be considered are those dealing with putting caps on crop insurance subsidies, and proposals dealing with the sugar growers' protection program, maple syrup, catfish and aerial surveillance of farmland.
Also on the agenda were several amendments having nothing to do with farm policy, including a measure to cut off public funds for political party conventions and another demanding a report on the effects of automatic cuts in defense and other federal spending to take place next January.
Left out was an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would have codified an agreement between egg producers and the Humane Society of the United States to increase the size of hen cages over the next 18 years and end the practice of depriving hens of food and water to increase egg production. Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle said other sectors of animal agribusiness lobbied against the measure out of concern that their sectors would also have to compromise on animal welfare issues.
The legislation envisions spending $969 billion over the next decade, with savings of $23 billion over the current farm bill that expires at the end of September. The savings come from replacing four safety net programs, including direct payments to farmers, with one program that compensates farmers for modest revenue losses before crop insurance kicks in, reducing conservation programs from 23 to 13 and ending abuses in the food stamp program.
In other action:
— The Senate rejected, by 84-15, an amendment by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would have limited all farm payments and benefits to those with adjusted gross incomes of less than $250,000. The bill, besides eliminating direct payment subsidies for all farmers, sets an income ceiling of $750,000 for receiving payment under the new revenue protection program. That program also has a payment cap of $50,000 for individuals or $100,000 for a married couple.
— The Senate accepted by voice vote an amendment by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., that would eliminate a proposed Agriculture Department catfish inspection office. The senators argued that the office duplicates a function already carried out by the Food and Drug Administration and that its real goal was to protect U.S. catfish growers from imports. They said it would cost $30 million to set up the office and $14 million a year to operate.