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Congress nears compromise on farm bill

January 28, 2014 at 9:43 PM EST
After two years of work and battle, Congress seems close to a farm bill deal. Gwen Ifill talks to Bloomberg News' Alan Bjerga about what's in the bipartisan compromise -- including changes to farm subsidies and $8 billion in cuts to food stamps -- and how the fight was uncharacteristically partisan.
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GWEN IFILL: It’s been two years since lawmakers began working on, and then fighting over, new farm legislation. The enormous, nearly 1,000-page bill that is now emerging in Congress could affect the cost of your groceries, the price of your child’s school lunch, and the profit picture for major American corporations.

The trillion-dollar compromise to reauthorize the law would eliminate many direct payments to farmers, but expand crop insurance, slice about $17 billion, including $8 billion from the food stamp program — that’s about 1 percent of the program’s total cost — and bring some reforms to the agricultural system itself.

There’s a reason it took so long to strike a deal.

Here to explain is Alan Bjerga, who covers agriculture issues for Bloomberg News.

Thank you for joining us.

ALAN BJERGA, Bloomberg News: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s walk through this piece by piece, first, the compromise on farm subsidies, direct payments to farmers.

ALAN BJERGA: What you saw developing as the farm bill was brought forth was a lot of political pressure to get rid of this program that essentially pays farmers $5 billion a year for being farmers.

GWEN IFILL: Including not to actually plant crops sometimes.

ALAN BJERGA: In some cases, you may see land lying fallow and direct payments still being had.

But this was part of a reform bill passed in 1996 in which you were going to have a transitional payment, a block grant, so to say, to get you off farm subsidies. It never went away, and public pressure just grew and grew to get rid of this program, especially in the last few years, when you have actually seen farmers doing quite well. You have seen farm profits near a record for the past several years.

It seems like, especially in a fiscally austere time, that this wasn’t money that farmers needed, so it went away.

GWEN IFILL: What they’re doing now, however, is keeping some of it?

ALAN BJERGA: Well, the idea is, is that you want to be able to help farmers when they need the help.

And so what you’re seeing is an expansion of insurance-based programs, programs that will help people when there are either weather problems or, say, market collapses. Now, again, these aren’t cheap either. And people who would like to see less government spending in general have been very frustrated with this bill because they feel like, again, these farmers are getting money during times when they don’t really need it.

But the consensus in the Agriculture Committees is that this is a better way to go.

GWEN IFILL: When you do hear about the farm bill, you often hear about the dispute over food stamp payments, nutritional — SNAP stands for something. What is it?

ALAN BJERGA: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as of the last farm bill in 2008.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

So, this time, however, they wanted to cut how much? And they cut it down to 1 percent. They wanted to cut 5 percent from it.

ALAN BJERGA: Well, these numbers have gone back and forth.

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

ALAN BJERGA: And at the most — the most expensive proposal you had in terms of the amount cut was $40 billion. That was in the Republican version of the farm bill. That was a food stamp-only bill that the House Republicans passed last fall. They actually split the food stamps from farm subsidies.

And that was actually sewn back together in this bill. There’s a longstanding coalition between urban lawmakers who want food stamp funds and rural lawmakers who want subsidies that really coalesced again and got the cuts in food stamps down to $8 billion, which is still $8 billion more than a lot of anti-hunger advocates would like to see, but it’s less than what the Republicans had wanted.

GWEN IFILL: So the urban/rural bedfellows, that — that partnership is really what got this bill through?

ALAN BJERGA: This has really been passing farm bills since 1977, when you saw the declining farm population, as well as a desire for more social justice, more social welfare programs when you had a Democratic-controlled Congress.

When welfare reform happened in 1996, you saw a lot of erosion of the social safety net. Food stamps to a lot of folks is the biggest game left in town. They want to protect that program.

GWEN IFILL: But there are a lot of people with a lot of dogs in this hunt, including corporations, agribusiness. This wasn’t just helping out poor people or helping out kids with school lunches.

ALAN BJERGA: Well, absolutely.

And when you take a look at who the big power players are in the farm bill, we learned at Bloomberg that 325 companies have been lobbying this bill in the first nine months of 2013. That’s the fifth-most-lobbied bill in Congress.

GWEN IFILL: How much money are we talking about there?

ALAN BJERGA: We’re talking — now, this isn’t specifically on the farm bill, but these are entities that in the same period spent almost $112 million.

GWEN IFILL: Wow.

ALAN BJERGA: This is heavy hitting. This is up there with health care, with defense, with the major lobbies in town, because the farm bill, even though it really only rises to prominence every five years or so, literally affects every person every day. Everyone eats.

GWEN IFILL: What do these businesses get for all of their efforts in this bill?

ALAN BJERGA: Well, if you’re a — if you’re a crop processor, say you’re Archer Daniels Midland or Cargill, what you get is a regular crop supply at possibly a consistent price.

These programs tend to even out supplies. If you are, say, a grocery store, a Wal-Mart or Kroger, again, the SNAP program, food stamps, subsidizes a lot of food purchases. If you are a crop insurance company, Wells Fargo has a very profitable unit — this also gives you possibly a little more security in your bottom line.

GWEN IFILL: This used to be a done deal. Everybody agreed that the farm bill every five years had to be renewed.

But it became controversial this time. Why?

ALAN BJERGA: Well, the farm bill has always been more of a regional bill than a partisan bill. You will often see a refighting of the Civil War every five years, where you have corn and soybean guys up on the Northern Plains going up against the cotton and rice guys in Georgia.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

ALAN BJERGA: But, in the end, they will build their coalition and they will bring it together.

You saw a lot more partisanship this time around. You saw a farm bill being a partisan issue in a way that it never had been before, very much a symptom of the Congress. But, as Congress seems to be getting more things done, the farm bill is symptomatic of that as well.

GWEN IFILL: Close vote ahead?

ALAN BJERGA: Could be. There’s still a lot of Democrats who don’t want to vote for these food stamp cuts. There are still a lot of Republicans who are concerned about the spending.

But you have leadership behind it this time. There’s a desire to get this off the plate. And then the consensus is, we will probably have a bill in the next couple weeks.

GWEN IFILL: The biggest controversy nobody has ever heard of.

Alan Bjerga, thanks for helping us out, with Bloomberg News.

ALAN BJERGA: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you.