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Slimmed farm bill reveals waning influence of agriculture

The 'dairy cliff' may have been avoided, but what was once a half-trillion-dollar bill full of subsidies for farmers was slimmed down to a no-frills extension. The once all-powerful farm interest may have lost its pull.

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The extension Stabenow and Lucas crafted cost around $1 billion — an amount too high and too risky for House and Senate leaders negotiating the broader fiscal cliff deal. According to aides familiar with the talks, the White House and congressional leaders wanted a farm bill extension with no major policy changes or new spending that could subject the entire fiscal cliff bill to opposition.

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Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky added a bare-bones version of a farm bill extension that didn't include money for any of the agriculture leaders' top priorities and renewed other farm programs without any new funding.

The result, the aides said, was a farm bill extension that would keep major programs going but didn't spend any new money. Missing were dollars for some organic programs, environmental programs and several different energy programs for encouraging renewable fuels. Many of those programs were renewed, but without any money.

The reaction from farm-state lawmakers was swift. Stabenow went to the Senate floor called the new bill "absolutely outrageous." Peterson said farm-state leaders had been "disrespected." Stabenow, as well as Lucas, ended up voting for it, Peterson against.

The National Farmers Union issued a statement saying it was "left out in the cold." The long-powerful National Corn Growers Association's statement said the group is "tired of the endless excuses and lack of accountability."

Direct payments, a subsidy that costs $5 billion annually and is paid to farmers whether they farm or not, were retained in the agreement. Both a Senate bill passed in June and a House Agriculture Committee bill passed in July had cut those payments after a consensus in the farm community that those subsidies would be eliminated and redirected.

"That is amazing to me, I have to say. That is absolutely amazing to me. I want to hear someone justify that on the Senate floor," Stabenow said.

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