SHARE 1 1 COMMENTMORE

By Christopher Doering and Raju Chebium
Gannett Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- After years of delays and contentious negotiations that threatened to derail the farm bill, Congress completed its work on a new five-year package Tuesday that now heads to the White House.

The White House said President Barack Obama will sign the legislation Friday at Michigan State University and discuss its importance to the economy.

The Senate voted 68-32 on a $500 billion farm bill that will end direct payments to farmers, expand the popular crop insurance program and cut spending on food stamps by 1 percent.

California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, voted yes.

"We have more than 80,000 farms and produce half of the nation's fruits, vegetable and nuts. This bill is a win for farmers and consumers, it invests in rural communities and agricultural research, takes key steps to reform wasteful spending and helps put food on the table for millions of Californians," Feinstein said in a statement after the vote.

Like Feinstein, Boxer decried the cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as the food stamp program is now called.

"It is shameful that Republicans demanded cuts to nutrition assistance for America's neediest families," Boxer said in a statement. "While no legislation is ever perfect, this farm bill will benefit California by making investments in specialty crops, conservation and research that are critical for our state's farmers and rural communities."

According to the senators, some items of particular interest to California are:

n The "margin protection program," a safety net program under which dairy farmers would get federal assistance when feed prices are high or milk prices are low

n Language requiring the U.S. Forest Service to modernize its air tanker fleet to combat wildfires more effectively

n Funding increases for various "specialty crop" programs to help growers of fruits, vegetables and nuts in California; these include $125 million for citrus disease research and $150 million over five years to promote farmer's markets

n Authorization for retroactive drought assistance for livestock owners, tree farmers, honeybee growers and fish farmers

n More than $400 million for the Payments In Lieu of Taxes program, or PILT, which would be extended until the end of fiscal 2014. California counties with vast federal lands shared the nation's biggest PILT allocation last year – $44.4 million.

The farm bill, which had been mired in Congress for nearly three years, was passed in a dizzying blur of action. It took just over a week for the legislation to be introduced by House and Senate negotiators and approved by lawmakers in both chambers.

The House passed the bill by a 251-166 vote last week.

The nearly 1,000-page bill, which replaces the 2008 legislation, sets policy on everything from trade and conservation to food stamps and subsidy payments to farmers. An estimated 16 million Americans are employed because of agriculture and food industries.

The legislation will reduce spending by $23 billion over a decade, with a portion coming from the end of the direct payment subsidy program that gives out $5 billion annually to farmers regardless of need.

In its place, the farm bill uses some of the savings to expand the federally subsidized crop insurance programs by $5.7 billion to help farmers better manage risk tied to unexpected weather disasters or gyrations in commodity prices. The bill also saves $6 billion by reducing the number of conservation programs to 13 from 23.

Funding for food stamps will be trimmed by $8 billion over the next decade, about 1 percent of total spending. The cuts are made through changes to a heating assistance program used by California and some states to determine if an individual qualifies to receive food assistance.

The change to the food stamp program that serves some 47.5 million Americans would reduce food stamp benefits by $90 a month for about 850,000 people.

Until recently, the food stamp program was the subject of the most haggling among Democrats and Republicans, as the two sides disagreed on how steep the cuts should be. House GOP leaders nearly killed the farm bill last July when they temporarily split the farm policy measures from the nutrition provisions before rejoining them later. Food stamps make up about 80 percent of spending in the farm bill.

While the reduction in the food stamp program is far below the $40 billion the Republican-controlled House had been looking for, it's still above the $4.5 billion targeted by the Democratic-majority Senate.

A controversial amendment from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that was approved initially by the House last year also was stripped out of the final bill. It would have prohibited states from enacting laws that set standards for the production of agricultural goods that are sold within its own borders, but are produced in other states.

The amendment was intended to block a California law that requires eggs sold in the state to come from chickens raised in cages where birds have enough room to spread their wings.

--

Contact Christopher Doering at cdoering@gannett.com and Raju Chebium at rchebium@gannett.com

SHARE 1 1 COMMENTMORE