New Farm Bill Focuses On Reaping, Not Sowing

The Senate will spend the next several weeks hashing through the farm bill. The legislation deals with everything from crop insurance subsidies to food stamps.

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A $970 billion bill, covering everything from food stamps to crop insurance, passed a key procedural hurdle in the Senate today, and it did so with overwhelming bipartisan support. The measure, known as the Farm Bill, comes up for renewal every five years. For lawmakers it's long been a way to bring big money back to their states.

But NPR's Tamara Keith reports that this year's bill comes with an austere spin.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In this age of big worries about big deficits, bragging about bringing home the bacon is passe. So the pitch for this year's massive Farm Bill is all about how much it saves, not how much it spends.

SENATOR DEBBIE STABENOW: This is not your father's Farm Bill. This is about the future.

KEITH: Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow is chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

STABENOW: The Farm Bill before us today makes major reforms. We are cutting subsidies. We are ending direct payments. We cut the deficit by over $23 billion.

KEITH: Pat Roberts, Republican from Kansas, is ranking member of the committee.

SENATOR PAT ROBERTS: They're real cuts. They are real deficit savings.

KEITH: The cuts come from conservation programs and food stamps. And much more substantially, by eliminating a program of direct payments to farmers from that paid them whether they planted crops or not. But it's a bit of a budgetary shell game, says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

STEVE ELLIS: They look like they're reforming, they're taking something away, and they're certainly bragging and yelling about that. But on the other hand, they're doing these handouts to various commodity groups.

KEITH: What he's talking about is how this farm bill comes up to subsidized Federal Crop Insurance Program.

ELLIS: And this is all insuring revenue, not even like insuring the crops. And in these cases, they're going to basically guarantee profits for these companies.

KEITH: Critics like Ellis say this creates a problem of incentives. Southern state farmers aren't fans either, because they'll lose direct payments. And what they grow, including peanuts and rice, won't benefit from the expanded Crop Insurance Program like Midwestern wheat and corn will.

Saxby Chambliss is a Republican senator from Georgia.

SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS REPUBLICAN, GEORGIA: Put simply, by making the bill too rich for a few at the expense of many, it lacks balance.

KEITH: This is but one area of concern. Deficit hawks say it still spends too much. Conservation groups don't like that it cuts from programs they support.

Ariane Lotti, with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, says this Farm Bill is full of contradictions.

ARIANE LOTTI: It's almost a Wild West of policies right now, where there are a number of different policies being proposed. It's unsure how they're going to overlap and interact.

KEITH: And this is just the Senate. Senators are expected to spend at least the next week debating and amending the bill. And it's quite likely, when the House takes its turn, it will have different spending priorities.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the capital

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