Garrett King, aide to U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., saw no need to contain his excitement Wednesday as he discussed passage of a farm bill earlier in the day by a 251-166, bi-partisan vote.
King echoed Chairman Lucas, calling passage of the bill “almost miraculous.” He also cited the bill as “monumental, a tremendous bi-partisan achievement,” and “the first farm bill that saves money.”
King discussed the farm bill during the Red River Crops Conference Wednesday in Altus, Okla.
He said passage of the farm bill was in contrast to complaints that the current legislative session is a “do-nothing Congress. This is an example of getting something done,” he said.
The farm bill is expected to include $23 billion in deficit reduction and achieves a “landmark transition” from direct payments to emphasis on insurance, a change he cited as “revolutionary.”
King said the bill not only “does no harm to crop insurance,” but strengthens it. It also makes livestock support permanent. “A permanently funded livestock program is huge,” he said.
Other achievements include offering farmers options so they can tailor programs to specific crops or conditions. Conservation programs, King said, have been streamlined but strengthened, reducing the number of programs by about half and reducing administrative costs. The bill continues funding for agriculture research and includes a compromise on dairy support — a factor that threatened to derail the bill as late as last week.
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King said savings in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps, “closed loopholes but still provides for the most vulnerable.”
The miraculous nature of the bill goes back to 2011, when Congress was deadlocked over deficit reductions and turned to a “super committee,” to solve the crisis. “We were in a ‘hurry-up’ process with the farm bill at the time,” King said. “That seems a long time ago. The 2012 farm bill has morphed into the 2013 and now the 2014 bill. “The process is at an end,” he said, assuming the Senate, slated to take up the bill next week, passes it. “Chairman Lucas thinks they will,” he said.
He added that the current make-up of the executive and legislative branches of government also complicated the process. He said most would agree that President Obama leans to the liberal side. The Senate operates in a much different manner than does the House, and the House is “fairly conservative. That set us up for a political gridlock of the highest order.”
And gridlock did prevail for most of the four or five years the farm bill was under consideration. “It’s been a very complicated, contentious process, a daunting process for a number of years. But this is a victory for bi-partisanship and for Congress doing what taxpayers sent them to Washington to do. We think this will be good for agriculture and for rural America.”
No one got everything they wanted in this bill, but King said it does show that “both parties and both chambers recognize the need for a continuation of a farm safety net.”
Most commodity organizations expressed pleasure over the first of three final hurdles to achieving a five-year farm program.
“The agreement on the farm bill presented by the conference committee is one that serves the bill’s role in ensuring food supply for our country, while also allowing for approximately $23 billion in 10-year savings for taxpayers,” Jimmy Wedel, a corn farmer near Muleshoe, Texas, and president of the Corn Producers Association of Texas, said.
“The farm bill is designed so such programs should only come into play should our farm industry face hard times,” Wedel said. “However, the security of a five-year bill is important for farmers in Texas as we’re looking to make long-range plans for our farms.”
Cotton growers also weighed in on the House bill.
“This legislative package adequately meets the needs of cotton producers across the Cotton Belt, and is the best we could have expected in this budgetary climate,” said Plains Cotton Growers President Craig Heinrich, a cotton grower from Slaton, Texas. “This bill will save $23 billion over 10 years, reforms and streamlines programs, and gives farmers assurance that they can continue to grow food and fiber to feed and clothe this nation and the world.”
Texas Farm Bureau President Kenneth Dierschke said, “We appreciate the courageous votes cast by the majority of the Texas delegation in favor of the bill's passage. Realizing how important the bill is to all Americans, not just farmers and ranchers, we hope the Senate soon follows in the House’s footsteps and approves the bill so that it can be sent to President Obama’s desk for his signature.”
He said voting no means “no reforms, no benefits, nothing. If passed by the Senate and signed into law, this bill will provide certainty that Texas farmers and ranchers need as they move forward in preparation for the spring and seasons to come.”
Conservation organizations also applaud passage. TheLand Trust Alliance said the bill will provide more than $1 billion for a new consolidated conservation program to save working farm and ranch lands over the next five years.
“This funding is a great investment for future generations of farmers, ranchers and all Americans,” said Rand Wentworth, president of the Land Trust Alliance, which represents 1,700 nonprofit land trusts that protect 47 million acres of farms, ranches, forests, wildlife habitat, and other open spaces.
The next step is Senate approval. King said passage is expected but no one will rest easy until it passes.
Failure to pass the bill would mean farm programs revert back to permanent law, the 1949 legislation, and no reforms would be in place.
A few items did not make the final cut in the farm bill, including country of origin labeling (COOL) reforms. “This and other issues will be addressed later,” King said.
Assuming prompt action and passage by the Senate and then President Obama’s signature, implementation will take some time. That process may be a bit slower than usual because of reductions in Farm Service Agency (FSA) resources dictated by sequester cuts. But FSA personnel are already working on writing rules to implement the law.
Wheat farmers, observers say, may not have time to sign up for the new programs for the 2014 crop.