South Dakota’s two U.S. senators praised the passage Thursday of a federal farm bill that revamps the crop-support system, limits financial help to higher-income producers and aims to save $23 billion over 10 years.
And they celebrated something that is hard to get in Washington, D.C., these days: bipartisanship.
“It’s one of the few issues in the last few months … that we’ve had both sides working together,” Republican Sen. John Thune said in a conference call with reporters after the Senate approved the farm bill on a 64-35 vote. “If we can get the same kind of product out of the House, I can’t think of a reason why the president wouldn’t sign it into law.”
Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson also lauded the spirit of cooperation on the bill, saying the Senate acted in an “extremely bipartisan fashion” to approve a bill that would support millions of jobs around the nation. Johnson also urged the House to follow the actions of the Senate.
“The Senate has done its work,” he said. “The House Agriculture Committee needs to move a farm bill so that we can give our producers certainty.”
The House could be in a less-conciliatory mood, however. Conservative Republicans in particular are geared up to challenge the costs of the bill, particularly for the nutrition provisions, known as the food stamp program.
The program, which accounts for about 80 percent of farm bill costs, has seen increased use and outlays in recent years. The widely used nutrition program will cost about $770 billion over 10 years under the Senate bill.
Republican Rep. Kristi Noem, South Dakota’s only member of the House, will see the House version of the farm bill immediately. She sits on the House Agriculture Committee, which had tentatively scheduled committee action on the farm bill to begin next Wednesday.
But an appropriations measure coming to the floor that day is likely to delay committee action on the farm bill, she said. Noem is optimistic that the House can manage a farm bill compromise.
“It’s great to see the Senate come together in a bipartisan way to pass something that is vital to every American,” Noem said. “We’ve been doing our preliminary work in the House on our bill and are ready to vote it out of committee sometime in early July.”
The Senate version was a complicated package that took final form in the past three days, when senators handled 73 proposed amendments. Those included another bit of bipartisanship, as Johnson and Thune came together on an amendment by Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of bug-troubled Colorado to enlarge an authorization for pine-beetle-related spending to $200 million. The original language by Thune had called for a $100 million authorization.
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The authorization doesn’t appropriate the money, which is another process. The language also gives the U.S. Forest Service more options and immediacy in forest-management projects to control pine beetles.
Conflicts over crop-support payments were settled, as well. The Senate version eliminates existing direct payments to farmers that are distributed regardless of whether they plant a crop in a given year. Also eliminated under the bill are payments to farmers when market prices for covered crops fall below a target level. Thune was instrumental in developing those revisions, creating a program that relies on crop insurance and a new risk-coverage program to support farmers.
If the House ends up “putting a target price in, they’ll have to pay for it somehow,” Thune said.
Johnson also worked with other senators, including Sen. Chuck Grassley,R-Iowa, to cap marketing loan gains. And the bill “takes historic steps to close loopholes which have allowed non-farmers to receive payments,” Johnson said.
Noem said the direct payments are seen in the House as an area where “we can find savings in the farm bill.” Noem will focus on assuring that programs to help with livestock and forage losses and emergency livestock assistance make it into the House version, as well as beefed-up pine-beetle programs similar to what the Senate passed.
Noem is pushing provisions to reduce initial crop insurance benefits for crops grown on native sod and certain grasslands. Thune had the same amendment inserted into the Senate version.
The Senate bill combines 23 current conservation programs into 13 and extends the Conservation Reserve Program through 2017, but it downsizes the cap on authorized CRP acres to 25 million by that year. The CRP program cap topped 34 million acres at its peak. In South Dakota, enrolled acres have declined from about 1.7 million to the current 1.1 million. An additional loss of 170,000 acres is possible this year.
Because CRP has such value to wildlife, a reduction gets the attention of natural resource officials, including Game, Fish & Parks Department wildlife program chief Tom Kirschenmann of Pierre. He said certain areas could be more sensitive to CRP losses than others.
“Obviously, there is some concern, especially for a landscape perspective from having the program reduced,” Kirschenmann said. “But a lot of it depends on where the acres are, where the reductions are.”
The Senate version isn’t perfect, but Thune said it makes improvements, cuts spending and provides support for the essential agricultural industry.
“It’s a sound approach to American agriculture, particularly in the times in which we are living now,” he said.