WASHINGTON — The House easily approved a new five-year farm bill Wednesday, ending nearly two years of contentious debate.
The final vote was 251-166. The bill, which preserves generous crop subsidies, heads to the Senate, where approval seems certain. The White House said President Barack Obama would sign it.
The final product averts deep cuts sought by Republicans in the federal food stamp program and ends direct payments to farmers — a controversial provision under the previous farm bill in which farmers received federal subsidies regardless of their output.
All but one House member from Nebraska and Iowa voted for the bill.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., was the lone no vote from the Midlands. He said the bill had many good provisions but lost his support when negotiators watered down the payment subsidy limits that he had fought to include.
“We have worked very hard on this very appropriate reform measure,” he said of the provision he favored. “Both bodies passed it with significant bipartisan majorities, and the conference committee gutted it.”
Fortenberry and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, initially were able to include in the measure a $250,000 hard cap on subsidy payments and tightening of loopholes in the requirement that recipients be “actively engaged” in the farming operation.
In the end, however, the conference committee that combined the House and Senate bills into a final version changed those limits to make them meaningless, supporters said.
Fortenberry said there is a “shadow” of the payment limits still in the bill and said the secretary of agriculture has some discretion to tighten loopholes. But that approach has been tried in the past and failed, he said. The outcome casts doubt on any future efforts to limit subsidy payments. “It's a pretty serious setback, a pretty big defeat,” Fortenberry said.
Grassley said Wednesday that he's leaning toward voting against the farm bill in the Senate, largely because of what was done to the payment limits by the conference committee.
He also isn't giving up hope that such limits could be achieved through some other legislation. Toward that end, he said, he will look for more examples of how the farm subsidy system has been abused, in order to build a stronger consensus on Capitol Hill.
“I think we have to build more cases for it than we already have if we're going to do it on something other than a farm bill, but I intend to continue working on that,” Grassley said.
Fortenberry praised other parts of the bill, including new conservation compliance initiatives, the elimination of much-criticized “direct payments” and movement toward a more risk-based safety net for farmers.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, supported the bill even though the conference committee dumped his amendment aimed at countering new California rules on the size of chicken cages.
Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., who represents Nebraska's largely agricultural 3rd District, also voted for the bill.
“Nebraska producers have waited for more than three years for a long-term farm bill,” he said. “Policy certainty will help our farmers and ranchers remain competitive and benefit consumers, and the bill contains important reforms to save an estimated $23 billion for hardworking taxpayers.”
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla, acknowledged the difficult path it had taken to reauthorize the 2008 farm bill. “This farm bill might not be quite defined by most people as a miracle,” he said. “But it's amazingly close.”
The $956 billion bill extends through 2018. It would cut $8 billion from the food stamp program — a smaller reduction than conservative House Republicans wanted but more than Senate Democrats said they could accept.
Sponsors, citing a Congressional Budget Office estimate, said the legislation reduces the deficit by $23 billion, based on the difference between new spending levels and those that would have been in place by extending the previous farm bill.
This report includes material from the Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers.