Senate approves new $900 billion farm bill by 87-13 vote

December 12, 2018

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to approve a new farm bill — welcome news to Midwestern producers who have been struggling with disruptions to their foreign markets.

Sen. Deb Fischer praised the nearly $900 billion package for its inclusion of crop insurance, trade promotion efforts and rural broadband expansion.

“In a time of uncertainty for farm country, this bill is going to bring confidence, stability and predictability to our families who feed our hungry world,” Fischer said in a release.

The every-five-years-or-so legislation covers everything from rural development to conservation programs. This year’s final version allocates billions in farm subsidies and legalizes hemp, among other provisions.

It does not include work requirements for some food stamp recipients. House Republicans had included those requirements in their version of the legislation.

The bill passed 87 to 13, garnering support from Fischer, fellow Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa.

But Sen. Chuck Grassley opposed the bill. The Iowa Republican has pushed for years to tighten limits on subsidy payments to farmers, including who qualifies for the payments.

Grassley successfully included those tighter limits in Senate farm bills more than once only to see them eliminated by the conference committees responsible for hammering out the final versions.

“I got screwed out of it in conference because people in southern agriculture don’t like it,” Grassley told reporters on Tuesday. “Because they want to help the wealthiest of farmers and not care about the taxpayers.”

The bill mirrors at least some provisions in the farm bill passed by House Republicans that would expand federal agriculture subsidies to nieces, nephews and first cousins of farmers — even if these relatives do not directly work on the farm.

Supporters say that expansion would help get more people involved in farming, but Grassley said it would have exactly the opposite impact. By giving more money to the wealthiest farmers and many nonfarmers with no “dirt under their fingernails,” Grassley said, it will be harder for younger people to break into the business.

“It’s just a loophole that gets bigger and bigger and bigger,” Grassley said.

The bill is estimated to have no additional impact on the deficit. The bill’s drafters used the baseline set by the Congressional Budget Office under existing spending levels of $867 billion over the next 10 years, meaning it will not increase the federal deficit from prior projections. Congressional aides said late Monday that they were still awaiting a final score from the CBO.

The farm bill also legalizes the production of hemp, a form of cannabis with lower CBD levels than marijuana. Analysts told CNBC that hemp could grow into a $20 billion industry by 2022.

Now the legislation goes to the House, where it’s likely to pass later this week and be sent to President Donald Trump’s desk.

[Read more: Emerging farm bill scraps House GOP’s plan for work requirements for food stamp recipients ]

Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., said he looks forward to supporting it. He represents the state’s sprawling and largely agricultural 3rd District, where he said producers crave the certainty of a long-term farm bill.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., is a member of the House Agriculture Committee. The Omaha area congressman said that he’s still calling various farm groups in Nebraska to gather input but that he’s “very inclined” to support it.

“So far all I’ve heard is positive feedback,” Bacon said. “Everything I see — it looks great.”

Bacon also singled out the creation of a foot-and-mouth vaccine bank as a good development.

“If we ever had an outbreak, our trade would be done for between five and 10 years,” Bacon said.

The bill included some provisions on food stamps aimed at preventing individuals from receiving benefits in multiple states. And it eliminates an awards program for high performance related to program access and payment accuracy.

Bacon described the food stamp provisions in the bill as incremental but headed in the right direction. He stood by the work requirements included in the original House bill but said the political reality was that they were never going to be approved.

Advocacy groups such as Nebraska Appleseed that had objected to the House version of the bill praised the final compromise’s approach to food stamps, often referred to by the acronym SNAP, and encouraged lawmakers to support it.

“The conference agreement does not include the proposed cuts to SNAP and other harmful changes that would have resulted in thousands of Nebraskans facing a loss of support,” said James Goddard, director of the group’s Economic Justice Program. “The new proposal reauthorizes SNAP and makes other modest improvements to the program.”

This report includes material from the Washington Post.