House members first defeated Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind’s motion to recommit, 251-172, and then voted to approve the conference report hammered out in nearly two months of intense negotiations by House and Senate conferees, 280-141.
The Senate was expected to take up the conference report as early as this afternoon. President Bush issued a statement praising Chairman Larry Combest and other members of the House-Senate conference committee and promising to sign the farm bill when it reaches his desk.
“This is a great day,” said Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Stoneville, Miss.-based Delta Council. “Our farmers have been holding their breath because they were afraid something might happen to upset this farm bill.”
For a while, that something appeared to be an effort by conference committee members John Boehner, R-Ohio, Ohio, vice chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and Cal Dooley, D-Calif., to have the House vote to send the report back to the conference committee.
Boehner argued that by repealing Freedom to Farm or the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 the conference report was taking a “giant leap backwards” to policies that were shown to have failed years ago.
Dooley said those policies were passed as temporary solutions and that the conference report was again trying to address long-term problems with those temporary solutions.
“We can do better,” said Boehner, arguing that Congress could pass a supplemental emergency assistance bill now and come back after the November elections and write a “better farm bill.”
Combest said that the conference report offered the best chance for U.S. farmers to get back on their feet and begin to compete with more heavily subsidized farmers from other countries.
Speaking to Boehner, he said “You do not create a conference report in a vacuum. It would take a tremendous amount of time to go back in and write another conference report. We are out of time for our farmers. If this motion passes, this conference report is dead, and it will take a monumental effort to begin the process again.”
To Boehner’s claims that the conference report sent the “wrong message” to U.S. trading partners, Rep. Charlie Stenholm, a conferee and ranking minority member on the Ag Committee disagreed.
“What this report says it that the United States will honor its WTO agreements – there is nothing in here that says we won’t,” said Stenholm. “But what it also says loudly and clearly is that we will not unilaterally disarm our farmers while other countries continue to refuse to cut their subsidies and go on with business as usual.”
As the debate ended, Wisconsin Rep. Kind, who was rebuffed in an attempt to include a heavily conservation-oriented amendment to the House farm bill, moved to recommit the conference report.
The motion to recommit instructed conference committee members to restore the Senate bill’s Grassley-Dorgan payment limit amendment to the conference report, provide more funding for conservation programs and increase spending for nutrition programs.
Combest countered that the conference report had already addressed those issues adequately.
“In addition to desperately needed help for farmers, it contains the largest single increase in conservation funding in history, significant gains for food stamp and nutrition funding, more resources for agricultural research, increased incentives for renewable fuels production, and a strengthened commitment to our rural communities,” he said.
“And it is all accomplished within limits of the budget.”
The new farm bill’s counter-cyclical payments will mean that Congress will not need to provide additional ad hoc income support when prices are in decline, said Stenholm. “Most importantly, it will continue to provide the American people with the most abundant food supply, the highest quality food and the safest food at the lowest cost to the consumer of any country in the world.”
Combest noted that passage of the “Farm Security and Rural Investment Act” will also provide better, more flexible help for farmers. “While the emergency bills have averaged $7 billion per year, this farm bill averages less than $5 billion per year in additional spending to help farmers.”
The total cost of the bill’s farming, nutrition, trade, and rural development aspects for the six-year term of the bill (FY 2002 - FY 2007) is projected at $45.114 billion by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
President Bush’s statement read, in part:
“I am pleased that the compromise agreement on the farm bill resulted in better-balanced commodity loan rates; spending that is no longer front-loaded; and the strongest conservation provisions of any farm bill ever passed by Congress. The final provisions of the farm bill are also consistent with America’s international trade obligations, which will strengthen our ability to open foreign markets for American farm products.”