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Farm Bill pushed to 2014

House, Senate polarized over changes in farm subsidies, SNAP cuts

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Posted: Saturday, December 14, 2013 6:00 am

WASHINGTON — The House passed a 30-day extension on the proposed Farm Bill Thursday: the fourth extension of the $500 billion piece of legislation since September 2012, when it was originally scheduled for approval.

This extension promises to be the last, Rep. Kristi Noem, R-SD assured South Dakotans Thursday afternoon. The extension, she explained, should give the Congressional Budget Office enough time to review the newest version of the bill and allow both the House and Senate to approve the legislation by the end of January.

“It’s not a perfect bill, but it will be the bill that has the most reform,” she said.

For decades the Farm Bill has guided policy makers to create legislation to ensure Americans have the means to grow, distribute, and afford nutritious food.

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-SD weighed in this week on the issue as well.

“It’s urgent that we pass a farm bill for our producers, and I’m disappointed that Congress didn’t pass a farm bill this year,” he said. “The House could pass the Senate’s bipartisan farm bill. With each passing day that there isn’t a farm bill our ranchers are suffering because they don’t have the safety net of the disaster programs that the bill will provide. I’m hopeful that passing a farm bill will be one of the first things Congress does when we return in January.”

Congress is mandated to update and amend the Farm Bill every five years — the last amended bill was signed into law in 2008 — but the plague of dysfunction running rampant across the halls of Congress has produced yet another delay.

Although an Agriculture Conference Committee continues moving closer to finalizing the bill, contention between the two parties is holding it back.

Noem hopes to solve those issues. Now that the preliminary agreement on the bill’s framework has been assembled, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) will examine the numbers to determine the exact costs of the programs included in the Farm Bill, as well as how much savings could result from the proposed cuts.

“Over the next few weeks, the CBO will be reviewing the bill so that in January we can put that legislation to a vote and give producers and consumers the certainty they deserve,” Noem said.

This is estimated to take about two weeks.

But all this waiting has frustrated Americans.

The Farm Bill is an important piece of legislation that’s vital to South Dakota’s agriculture industry. The bill’s numerous delays have made farmers uncertain of what the next five years may hold for them, and more pressingly, livestock producers in South Dakota are aching for the disaster assistance the bill could provide in the fallout of winter storm Atlas.

Noem said she understands this completely and is fighting to keep disaster assistance unaltered in the final version of the bill. And she said she knows why passage of this bill is so important to ranchers, noting that the tens of thousands of cattle lost to winter storm Atlas was catastrophic — even more so since it came right after the hardship of 2012’s drought. Those ranchers could get a big boost if a federal livestock disaster program that expired in 2011 is revived in the new Farm Bill, which both House and Senate versions of the bill include provisions for.

But there are still many issues in the bill that the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate are at odds on.

Proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP) are at the center of the debate, at a time when more Americans are enrolled in the program than ever before — almost 48 million, some 7 million more than in 2010. The Senate-approved version of the bill would cut about $4 billion from the program over the next 10 years, compared to the $39 billion in reductions over the same time period assumed in the revised nutrition title approved by the House in September. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the House version of the bill would deny SNAP to approximately 3.8 million low-income Americans in 2014 and to an average of nearly 3 million people each year over the coming decade.

The increase in Americans enrolled in SNAP is due in large part to the severe economic downturn of 2008. National unemployment dropped from 5 percent to 10 percent, resulting in a 32 percent increase in the number of Americans who live under the poverty line, putting numbers at an estimated 15 million.

Not everyone believes the economic downturn is to blame for the drastic increase. It’s been reported that changes in SNAP policies, some of them associated with the 2002 and 2008 Farm Acts, have made benefits easier to apply for, more generous, and easier to apply for.

When SNAP’s policies changed, many people chose to sign up, due in large part to its status as one of very few remaining public assistance programs available to low-income Americans that hadn’t had its funding reduced, or slashed completely.

“At this point, what I’m interested in doing is focusing on fraud and abuse — ways to tighten up the system to make it more accountable,” Noem said of her party’s plans to cut SNAP funding. “I’m not interested in taking food away from folks who have had an economic disaster, just as I’m not interested in cutting crop insurance for farmers who have had economic disasters.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been campaigning heavily to urge the passage of the Farm Bill since 2011. He says that in today’s world dairy producers need effective change to halt the decline of operations, conservation programs must stay in place to protect farmlands and open space, and organic and specialty crop producers must have access to the bill’s programs to provide revenue through direct consumer sales. Vilsack also points out that Farm Bill programs fund student research programs and create avenues for the expansion of renewable energy, bio-fuel and bio-based product manufacturing, all of which means jobs in rural America.

And so passage of the Farm Bill is pushed forward yet again into another year, whether it will finally become law or remain an infuriating symbol of the fundamentally twisted political climate in the United States is anyone’s guess.

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