Panel's approval of farm bill riles Roberts




Special to The Telegram

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts voted against the Senate Agriculture Committee markup of the farm bill Tuesday, calling it a "rear-view-mirror bill" instead of moving forward with reform.

"This is an invitation to farm for the government," he told The Hutchinson News Tuesday, stressing his frustration about the bill and being one of five Senate Agriculture Committee members — four of whom where Republican — to cast "no" votes.

Despite the regional fighting between Midwest and Southern Republicans, the five-year Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 passed the committee quickly Tuesday morning — in about four hours — even faster than Roberts himself expected.

The legislation, which would cost $100 billion annually, was approved 15-5 by the panel, largely thanks to a new top Republican on the committee who helped shape the current Senate legislation.

Roberts, the ranking Ag Committee member last year, was forced to step aside by Thad Cochran, R-Miss. Roberts said that shift made all the difference in the formation of a bill that is very favorable to Southern farmers.

Cochran asserted his rank to the committee in January.

However, as the farm bill debate heated, Roberts led the opposition — which included Republicans Mitch McConnell, Kentucky; Mike Johanns, Nebraska; and John Thune, South Dakota — largely because of his discontent with the bill's new adverse market payment program, or AMP. The program rejuvenates the target price program and, said Roberts, is tailored to Southern crops like peanuts and rice.

Roberts Tuesday also expressed concern over some changes in crop insurance and not deep enough cuts to the food-stamp program.

The legislation, crafted by Cochran and Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D- Mich., comes a year after Roberts' key work on a bipartisan bill that passed the Senate last summer. That bill didn't include a counter-cyclical program — a "safety net" that pays farmers if the market price falls below the target price.

Roberts said the current Ag Committee version raises the guaranteed price level for rice by $2.80, to $13.30 per hundredweight. For peanuts, the target price jumps from $495 to $523 a hundredweight.

"I understand that rice and peanut farmers will no longer have direct payments, but Kansas wheat, corn, soybean, milo, canola and even cotton growers are giving up theirs, too," he said.

According to Roberts' office, Kansas' staple commodities in this bill are tied to the "Grassley, Thune, Johanns, Roberts amendment." This ties target prices for all commodities — except for rice and peanuts — to a rolling five-year average, and there would be, at a minimum, some market orientation for the target prices.

Roberts noted that when base acres were established more than 25 years ago, Kansas farmers planted 2.8 million acres of corn, 4.2 million acres of sorghum, 1.6 million acres of soybeans and more than 12 million acres of wheat.

Today, however, farmers are planting for the market — not Washington, he said.

In the most recent three-year period, Kansas farmers planted 4.6 million acres of corn, 2.6 million acres of sorghum, 4 million acres of soybeans, and 8.8 million acres of wheat.

Roberts said he also has World Trade Organization concerns.

"Farmers will be planting for the government — at least that is the danger," he said, later adding, "Bottom line, the farmers will be enticed. In the third year of a drought, they are going to be certainly more willing to farm for the government as opposed to the market, and I thought we got rid of those 20 years ago."

The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to take up the measure this week.

The farm bill still has to go through conference, giving Roberts some hope for his supported changes.

"I'm a senior Marine in the Congress," he said. "It's a steep hill, and we've taken hills before, and we'll see."

Other changes include:

* Direct payments: It's no surprise that direct payments, which cost the federal government about $5 billion annually, will be phased out.

* Crop insurance: According to The Associated Press, the Senate bill, as well as a proposed bill to be debated by the House Ag Committee this week, would increase subsidies for federally subsidized crop insurance and create a new crop insurance program that covers smaller revenue losses on planted crops before crop insurance kicks in. This revenue-protection program favors Midwestern corn and soybean farmers and would be more generous in the Senate bill.

However, Roberts noted cuts to the program.

The Senate legislation would change the Supplemental Coverage Option from a 70 percent premium support level to 65 percent — an estimated $700 million cut from last year. And, if the legislation is realized, Actual Production History yield plug for transitional yields would be reduced from 70 percent to 65 percent, a $500 million program cut.

In essence, this policy insures producers against yield losses due to natural causes such as drought.

Those reductions would be added to the $12 billion the government has cut from crop insurance in the past four or five years.

* Food stamps: Roberts said the Senate bill cuts about $4 billion over 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program, or SNAP. The House bill would cut more than $20 billion.

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