Senate’s Farm Bill Journey Ends in Passage

Posted June 21, 2012 at 1:54pm

The Senate today approved a sweeping five-year farm bill in a bipartisan effort, ending weeks of negotiations and notching yet another major legislative victory for the upper chamber.

The $969 billion legislation, which would shave $23.6 billion off the deficit over the next decade, cleared the Senate on a 64-35 vote and included significant reforms like the elimination of direct subsidies to farmers and changes to the federal food stamp program.

Despite the Senate’s bipartisan support, however, it is unclear whether the package will garner enough support in the House. In recent months, the Senate has approved a transportation bill, post office reform and a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act on broad bipartisan votes — all without corresponding House action. The transportation bill didn’t even have a House-passed counterpart and is slowly slogging through conference.

Senate Democratic leaders heralded today’s farm bill vote as a huge win for Congressional comity. Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) noted that the Senate’s bipartisan work now could create “goodwill” for the daunting slate of year-end work, including raising the nation’s debt ceiling, attempting to replace more than $1 trillion of scheduled across-the-board cuts and dealing with trillions of dollars worth of expiring tax cuts.

If goodwill could be created merely by expending hours of floor time, then this week’s farm bill debate certainly would be a dealmaker. Late Monday night, Senate negotiators announced an agreement to move forward with 73 amendments, and lawmakers spent almost all their time after that on the floor casting votes on a variety of germane and non-germane offerings.

Of the notable amendments voted on today was a compromise brokered between Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray dealing with the sequestration triggered by the failure of last fall’s super committee to reach a deficit reduction deal. Republicans had wanted an amendment focused squarely on the more than $500 billion in planned defense cuts, but Democrats advocated that the measure address domestic discretionary cuts as well.

Murray and McCain announced the deal earlier in the day, which would require the Pentagon and the Office of Management and Budget to file reports to Congress within a month of enactment on the effects of the across-the-board cuts. The president would have two months from enactment to submit in writing his view of the cuts’ effects and also how his administration plans to implement the sequester if it is not rolled back.

The underlying bill, a labor of love between Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), represents one of the most significant reforms of the farm subsidy system in decades. Congress must approve an authorization every five years in order for programs to continue.

It would eliminate direct subsidies to farmers, establish a crop insurance program, consolidate 23 conservation programs into 13 and streamline the food stamp program, cutting $4 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program during the next 10 years.