The U.S. Senate plowed its way to rare bipartisan agreement Thursday on a five-year path for farm policy.
Nebraska Republican Mike Johanns and Democratic counterpart Ben Nelson were part of the 64-35 majority behind a five-year farm bill that moves toward crop insurance as the primary safety net for farmers and away from direct government payments.
“This is a reform-minded bill,” Johanns said in a conference call with reporters after the vote. “I have to tell you I like this bill. I’m very pleased to vote yes. I do think it’s a step in the right direction for agriculture.”
Since the results affect Nebraska’s No. 1 industry, he said, “this is a very, very important piece of legislation for our state.”
In a prepared statement, Nelson said action on the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act swaps direct subsidies for subsidized insurance premiums while cutting spending by $23 billion.
Attention now shifts to the House, where bipartisanship may be more elusive and where budget cutting might be deeper.
Nelson urged House members to act promptly. “Congress must set a new five-year course for American agriculture this year,” he said.
The Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest farm organization, said the Senate had set a good example for the House.
Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson said it was critical that Congress pass a farm bill soon “to provide certainty for farmers and ranchers on farm programs, given the farm bill touches virtually every aspect of American agriculture.”
Reactions from the Nebraska Farmers Union and the Nebraska Center for Rural Affairs were more mixed.
Farmers Union President John Hansen isn’t as confident that crop insurance can be a long-term cushion against the ups and downs of weather and prices. Rural Affairs Executive Director Chuck Hassebrook is equally troubled by the rules for the insurance approach.
“Crop insurance will cost taxpayers the most money when production is best,” Hansen said. “And it will cost the least money and do the least good when either production or prices, or both, are at their worst.”
Hassebrook was pleased that the Senate adjusted its approach to require that farmers use conservation practices to control erosion in exchange for subsidies that typically cover 62 percent of insurance premiums.
“There are parts of northeast Nebraska where a lot of marginal grassland is being torn up to plant $6 (per bushel) corn,” he said.
But he called it “a major weakness” that there won’t be any payment limitations on public money applied to premiums.
“If you’ve got 5,000 acres of $6 corn, don’t you think you could afford to buy your own crop insurance?”
Hansen said members of the Nebraska Farmers Union and the National Farmers Union wanted to restore a farmer-owned grain reserve and target prices that would assure that farmers could cover their cost of production.
That’s a better way to deal with a prolonged slump in prices or precipitation, he said. Despite the state’s irrigation resources, “you don’t have to convince anybody from about west of York that a drought can happen.”
While criticism in Nebraska went in that direction, many of the no votes in the Senate appeared to come from lawmakers from southern states who are not as ready to give up direct government payments.
That showed up in the roll call results from Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama, for example.
Even though much of the attention in farm states is on farm provisions of the bill, Thursday’s vote also set the direction for food-stamp spending, a much bigger portion of its overall cost.
Some 46 million people in the Untied States are food-stamp beneficiaries. Food-stamp spending has doubled in the past five years.
The food-stamp factor could be pivotal in the cost-conscious House.
“I don’t know what way this will go in the House,” Hassebrook said of the overall bill.
One of the amendments that did not get attached to the Senate bill came from Johanns.
He wanted to block aerial surveillance of cattle feedlots and other livestock confinement operations by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA has defended that strategy as a good way to monitor for manure runoff into rivers and streams.
The Johanns effort fell four votes short. But he noted 10 Democrats were among the 56 senators on his side.
“That’s a very powerful message to the EPA that they’re doing something seriously wrong,” he said.