The Senate and House Agriculture Committees conducted mark up of their respective Farm Bills. On Tuesday, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed S. 954, the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013, by a vote of 15-5, and on Wednesday, the House Agriculture Committee passed H.R. 1947, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management (FARRM) Act of 2013, by a vote of 36-10. During each chamber’s markup, several key themes were debated and considered as amendments.

Both bills would yield savings, although of different levels and by different methods. The Senate bill proposes to cut $23 billion from the federal deficit over the next decade – $16 billion from the commodities title, or farm safety net (some of which would be used for enhanced crop insurance), $6 billion from conservation programs, and $4 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The House bill would save roughly $40 billion, including the immediate sequestration of $6 billion. The approximate breakdown for the House bill is $14 billion from the farm safety net, $7 billion from conservation and environment-related programs, and $20 billion from the SNAP Program.

The following is a brief description of the discourse from each committee’s markup on the key topics in both pieces of legislation.

  • Dairy: The House Committee rejected an amendment, 20-26, from Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and David Scott (D-GA) that would have repealed the dairy market stabilization provision from the bill. The amendment was supported by the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and was nearly identical to an amendment introduced last year by the same sponsors. Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) voted against the amendment. Dairy was not discussed in any notable way during the Senate markup. However, an amendment from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) which would require USDA to issue a request for preliminary proposals for restructuring the current pricing formulas used in Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMO) passed. The dairy industry – producers and processors alike – has long expressed an interest in reforming the FMMO system.
  • SNAP: The House Committee rejected two amendments from opposing ends of the political spectrum. One, from Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), would have fully restored the cuts, failed by a vote of 17-27. Another, from Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX), which would have made even greater cuts to SNAP, also failed. The lengthy duration of the House markup was partially due to the spirited debate over SNAP cuts, with some committee members invoking religion to support their arguments for or against the cuts.

    The Senate Committee also had a spirited, yet cordial, debate over the proposed SNAP cuts. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) was the most vocal opponent of the proposed cuts as Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) tried to maintain the delicate balance between the level of SNAP cuts and cuts to other portions of the bill. The committee beat back several amendments on SNAP from Democrats and Republicans alike. Two from Sens. Mike Johanns (D-NE) and Pat Roberts (R-KS) would have eliminated categorical eligibility and closed certain loopholes, respectively. Also defeated was an amendment from Sen. Gillibrand that would have restored the SNAP cuts.

  • Farm Safety Net – The Senate Agriculture Committee made the commodities title a greater focus of its markup than did the House Committee, however they made no major changes. One of the most notable changes, made through a manager’s amendment from the chairwoman, was to link crop insurance assistance from the government with mandatory compliance with conservation programs – a concept referred to as “conservation compliance.” The change reflects an agreement made among a critical mass of major farm organizations to include conservation compliance in order for other programs to be maintained.

    Several amendments were proposed to amend the Adverse Market Payments (AMP) program, which sets target prices and establishes counter-cyclical payments for crops. Sen. John Thune (D-SD), introduced an amendment to strike all crops except rice and peanuts from the program, which failed. Another amendment, co-sponsored by Sens. Thune, Roberts and Charles Grassley (R-IA), that would have set target prices at 2008 Farm Bill levels was also defeated.

Notably, amendments granting USDA the authority to create an organic check-off program also passed in each chamber. The check-off program, similar to those operated by the beef and dairy industries, would be created by the USDA if the organic industry opts to establish and pay into it. The House amendment was introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and the Senate amendment was introduced by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO).

The bills now head to the Senate and House floors for consideration by those full legislative bodies. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Stabenow suggested debate on S. 954 could begin as soon as next week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has indicated his desire to pass the Farm Bill during the month of May. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Lucas indicated H.R. 1947 will likely see floor time in June. He also said he hopes to conduct conference negotiations with the Senate in July and pass reauthorization prior to the August recess.