Congressional shocker: House votes down farm bill
Central Florida's Agri-Leader Less than 24 hours after Florida agricultural leaders expressed confidence that the House would follow in the footsteps of the Senate and pass a sweeping farm bill, both Republicans and Democrats revolted - for different reasons - over proposed cuts to the food stamp program on June 20 and voted down the bill 234-195. Democrats who voted against the bill did so because they object to its $20.5 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Republicans voted against the bill because they wanted even deeper cuts to food stamps. The Senate bill passed on June 10 cut SNAP by just $3.9 billion.Food stamp funding represented $743.9 billion of the $940 billion House package. "Nobody expected this," Janell Hendren, national affairs coordinator for Florida Farm Bureau said from Capitol Hill moments after the vote. "I am in shock. I don't know where we go from here." Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association president Mike Stuart, also in Washington for the vote, could not be reached for comment. It is not a total surprise that political differences over food stamps would derail an opportunity to replace the expired 2008 farm bill. Two days before the House vote, President Barack Obama said he would veto a bill that included significant cuts to the SNAP program. At the same time, Republicans began making public their view that the proposed cuts in the House and Senate bills were not enough. "We were incredibly discouraged by the President's announcement that he would veto the bill," Hendren said a day before the House voted down its own bill. "That is not a game we want to play. The fact is that farmers - and especially Florida farmers - need a farm bill in place." Before the left for Washington last week, both Hendren and Stuart had praised Congress for finally moving on a piece of legislation that served the most important interests of Florida farmers by continuing key programs that were included in the old bill, such as the specialty crop block grant program and specialty crop research initiative. Both of those programs were fully re-funded at 2008 levels. Stuart also expressed enthusiasm for continued funding of the federal fruit and vegetable snack program used in schools to introduce children to a healthier diet. That is particularly important to Florida producers, he said, because of the innovative program developed by Agriculture Commissioner Adam H. Putnam to foster a bigger niche market for farmers to sell directly to local school districts. "And because our production year in Florida corresponds with the school year," he said, "that program is just a natural fit and an excellent opportunity for growers and for children." FFB, however, has some lingering concerns over some provisions of the Senate and House bills. One is the proposed means testing that will be applied to an expanded crop insurance program designed to largely replace $5 billion a year in direct subsidies to growers of corn, wheat and other crops. FFB's major concern, Hendren said before the House vote, is a price support program for dairy farmers that could have a negative impact on Florida, because a supply management program designed to prevent dairy producers from flooding the market to drive down prices in order to collect federal funds could make a pre-existing problem in Florida even worse. "Florida is a milk deficit state," Hendren said. "We rarely produce enough milk to meet our own demand. For most of the year, we are in a deficit. And we have a growing population. That means that if we were to agree to participate in the proposed supply management program, what could happen is right when Florida is at its biggest milk deficit, which is in summer, when cows are not producing enough, that's when some other states might have significant increases in production and supply management would kick in. But that would mean when we are at our lowest level of production, we would be forced to cut production further." But the issue of overarching importance, she said, is simply to get a bill passed and signed by President Obama. "Our planting season in Florida is earlier than anyone else's," she said. "So if this bill doesn't get passed by September 30, everybody else has already harvested by that time. But in Florida, we're just starting to plan. And that is the worst time to not have a farm bill in place." After the House voted down the farm bill, Hendren said she had no idea where the process goes from here. "We'll just have to wait and see what happens now," she said.