Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Senate votes mandatory funding for some Rural Development programs in Farm Bill

The U.S. Senate voted this afternoon to amend the 2012-17 Farm Bill to include $150 million mandatory funding for certain Rural Development programs in the Department of Agriculture, rather than leave them at the mercy of appropriators and administration officials.

The amendment would secure funding for non-farm microenterprise development, which advocates said is in danger, guarantee funding for water and sewer projects for which applications have already been filed; and avoid cuts in programs for beginning and minority farmers.

The vote, 55-44, was almost entirely along party lines, with Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri voting no and Republican Susan Collins of Maine voting yes. Collins' seatmate, Republican Olympia Snowe, voted no. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, another moderate Republican, switched from no to yes near the end of the vote.

Debate was limited to one minute on each side by the agreement governing consideration of 73 amendments to the bill. Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio, left, who sponsored the amendment, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, chair of the Agriculture Committee, spoke for it. She implicitly defended her committee's decision to leave the usual Rural Development title out of the bill, saying the move eliminated 16 specific spending authorizations. For Brown's press release on the amendment, click here.

Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas opposed the amendment, saying it reduces the five-year savings in the bill to an estimated $23.2 billion, and "If we're going to achieve savings we've got to hold the line."

Final Senate approval of the bill is expected next week. UPDATE, June 20: Agri-Pulse reports that it could pass this week. The early consideration of the Rural Development amendment, because of its financial implications, may have helped secure its passage.

Meredith Shiner of Roll Call reported that "Sources were cautiously optimistic that the Senate will approve a bill that received a bipartisan 16-5 vote out of committee. But it is also clear that certain regional disputes will be tougher to bridge and that even if the Senate does pass the bill, the road to the president’s desk likely will be difficult, if not impossible, with a Republican-controlled House."

Shiner wrote that the agreement on the amendments was a "massive" deal that was passed by unanimous consent and includes some measures that are not germane to the bill Reuters reports several of the amendments, including those about debt reduction, subsidies and soil erosion, "are meant to put lawmakers on the record on hot-button spending issues."

David Rogers of Politico reports that crop insurance, sugar price supports and food stamps "will all likely be subject to multiple challenges testing their political support." Rogers also reports that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was promised a vote on his RAISE Act, which amends labor laws to give employers more ability to reward performance bonuses. The Associated Press notes the bill, which financially is mainly about nutrition, will provide $80 billion a year for the food-stamp program.

The Rural Development amendment was "hanging by a thread," Chuck Hassebrook of the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs wrote earlier for the Daily Yonder. He asked, "Why is the political system unresponsive to the more than 95 percent of rural people who do not farm but need jobs, opportunity and community development?" He offered these answers: "Rural Development gains little mention in the news media. It’s not on the list of concerns that pundits say must be resolved before the Farm Bill can muster enough support to pass the Senate. Rather, all eyes are on the dispute between Midwestern and Southern agriculture interests on how commodity payments are structured. Rural development scarcely prompts a mention. . . . Our organizations are not presumed, individually or collectively, to represent the rural masses. And there is little fear that ignoring our pleas will prompt dire electoral consequences with rural voters generally."

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