Billions on the chopping block: Senate debates farm bill

Farm Forum

WASHINGTON – Working on a new farm bill, the Senate recently defeated an amendment to change the sugar program but limited the crop insurance premium subsidies for high-income farmers before putting off further action on the bill until after a Memorial Day break.

In a major victory for the sugar grower industry, the Senate voted against an amendment by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to change the program. The vote was 45 in favor and 54 against.

North Dakota Sens. John Hoeven, a Republican, and Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, made major speeches explaining the importance of the program, and they were joined by senators from other beet and cane-growing states.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., explained the behind-the-scenes negotiations in a telephone call to reporters on May 23. Franken said senators from sugar-growing areas “worked hard on the Senate floor” to convince a majority of senators to vote against the amendment, which would not have ended the program but would have limited its effectiveness.

“We were actually kind of worried,” especially because there were concerns about the votes of newly selected senators, Franken said.

Several senators gave pledges that their votes would not be the one to “scuttle” the program, Franken said, but the pro-sugar group convinced 54 senators to vote to maintain the current program.

Franken said he, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Hoeven and Heitkamp, had a team strategy to approach undecided voters, noting that sugar beets are important to the economies of their states.

According to a North Dakota State University study, Franken said, sugar is responsible for 2,500 jobs in the two states and a total of 19,000 jobs depend on it, with a total economic impact of $5 billion.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., was the presiding officer when Franken gave a speech on the importance of the sugar program, and he told reporters he was sure he had convinced her of its merits. But Baldwin told him she had consistently opposed the program when she was in the House, and she voted for the Shaheen amendment.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., had led the effort to insist that American steel be used in construction under the Water Resources Development Act, which the Senate recently passed, and Franken convinced him that sugar, like steel, should be produced in the United States.

Franken said he convinced Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., to vote for the sugar program because Indiana is a farm state and the sugar program “is a farm program.”

Nick Sinner, executive director of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, participated in the call with Franken. He said the sugar growers “have a lot of work ahead of us” in the House, which is expected to take up the farm bill in mid-June.

“It is not a done deal,” Sinner said, adding that growers would be coming to Washington in early June to lobby Congress.

Crop insurance subsidies

Lobbying by the crop insurance industry and farm and conservation groups did not, however, stop the Senate from voting to reduce crop insurance premium subsidies for farmers with incomes of more than $750,000. While that would affect only a small number of farmers, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said it could encourage the biggest farmers not to sign up for the program, which would mean they would not be subject to conservation compliance. That rule is not popular in the Dakotas, but it is popular nationally and was part of a behind-the-scenes deal to try to stop subsidy limits on high-income farmers.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Mich., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said the cut would be small and that big farmers would still get such a big premium subsidy they would take out crop insurance. But Stabenow and the study said affected farmers’ premium costs would rise about 40 percent.

Path forward

The Senate voted 70-21 against an amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to make clear that states have authority to require labels designating foods with genetically modified ingredients.

The exact path forward on the bill is unclear.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the schedule for the bill will depend on whether Stabenow and ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., can reach agreement on a “finite number” of amendments for the Senate to consider. The immigration bill approved recently by the Senate Judiciary Committee could also be taken up the same week, Reid said.

About 200 amendments have been filed on the farm bill, but the Senate has already rejected controversial proposals to eliminate a $4 billion cut over 10 years in the food stamp program and to change the sugar program. The Senate also rejected an amendment that would have allowed states to run food stamp programs. But Stabenow said the Senate will continue to work on the bill until it is finished.