BILLINGS — U.S. Rep. Steve Daines and fellow Republicans passed a scaled-down farm bill Thursday that got a lukewarm reception from a broad spectrum of Montanans.
Daines told The Billings Gazette that the bill wasn’t perfect, but it moved the debate forward on farm policy crucial to Montana’s $3-billion-a-year agriculture economy. Two other House attempts to pass a farm bill failed, with the latest stall occurring just three weeks ago. It wasn’t until Republicans stripped food stamps and other nutrition programs from the bill that enough GOP votes emerged to pass the legislation without support from minority Democrats.
“We need to keep moving forward and we need to start providing some long-term stability for farmers and the agriculture communities in Montana,” Daines said. “The debate really centers around the food stamp program, not the ag components.”
Federal nutrition subsidies for the poor, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps, were pulling the farm bill down, Daines said. The programs accounted for 80 percent of the total bill’s cost — roughly $500 billion over five years. In June, many conservative lawmakers withheld farm bill support because they wanted deeper cuts to nutrition programs.
Republicans lined up behind the farm bill Thursday as it passed 216-208, with Democrats withholding all support because subsidies for the poor were cut from the bill entirely.
Removing nutrition subsidies from the bill was a divisive move, ending a marriage between those programs and farm subsidies. That pairing had, since the 1970s, given urban and rural lawmakers reason to work together on farm bill passage.
Montana farm groups worried that the farm bill split would hurt agriculture eventually.
“We weren’t in favor of splitting the bill,” said Sandy Courtnage, of the Montana Farmers Union. “We thought it should stand together and we were disappointed when they went that route.”
Additionally, MFU and other groups were disappointed Republicans did way with the long-standing “permanent law” requiring federal farm policy to revert back to the original farm bill language of the 1938 and 1949. The threat of reverting to 60-year-old farm policy, has nudged Congress into updating federal farm policy every five years.
The House farm bill passed Thursday would use the new commodity title as the backstop and farmers worry that would make passing future farm bills difficult if not impossible.
Another concern was that the Senate has already passed its version of the farm bill complete with nutrition subsidies. The two bills must be reconciled in conference and some farmers say the House and Senate versions are too different to be reconciled.
John Youngberg of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation said he didn’t think there would be a farm bill passed this year and possibly not until after the 2014 mid-term elections. That delay would mean farmers and their lenders will have been without the stability of long-term farm policy for three years.
Meanwhile, groups working with the poor worried about the fate of the nutrition subsidies. Cut from the House farm bill, nutrition subsidies will not be debated on their own and most likely passed on a partisan vote with deeper cuts than the $20 billion proposed in the House farm bill that failed June 20.
“Unless we can start changing the mindset of one of the parties, it’s probably not going to change the picture a whole lot,” said Gayle Gifford, Montana Food Bank Network CEO.
SNAP has become a critical supplement for Montana’s poor as they recover from the recession and likely will become more critical as long-term unemployment benefits phase out, she said.
In 2012, 127,000 Montanans used SNAP, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Conservatives wanted deeper cuts to farm programs. Henry Kriegel of Americans For Prosperity Montana said his organization wanted SNAP split from the farm bill, but it also wanted deep cuts to farm subsidies, which it didn’t get.
“We wanted reforms in the program,” Kriegel said. “Specifically, we wanted to cut the spending overall. That’s one of our overall objectives. We believe we’re spending ourselves into bankruptcy.”
Kriegel said the House farm bill subsidizes large corporate farms capable of standing on their own while doing little for small farmers. AFP opposes that.