Long-overdue farm bill cuts spending by $23 billion

Cattle at Hunter Haven Dairy Farm in Pearl City, Ill.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The House of Representatives passed a comprehensive farm bill Wednesday that cuts payments for food stamps by about 1 percent and ends a direct subsidy to farmers, while expanding government-backed crop insurance programs.

After months of negotiations and criticism from across the political spectrum, the measure passed easily, 251-to-166, with 162 Republicans joining 89 Democrats in favor. The bill, which is supposed to be passed every five years, is more than a year overdue.

A vote in the Democratic-run Senate could come as early as Thursday. The bill is expected to pass, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow told reporters Wednesday. White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama would sign the legislation.

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The wide-ranging bill affects about 16 million jobs in the country's agricultural sector and can impact the business of major agricultural companies.

"This bill eliminates unnecessary subsidies, creates a more effective farm safety-net, and strengthens our commitment to conservation of land and water," Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, said in a statement.

She was on the House floor Wednesday and was seen hugging some members after the vote.

The agriculture committees say the bill will save about $23 billion over 10 years, compared with current funding—less than many conservative Republicans had hoped for. The Congressional Budget Office, using a different measurement, has estimated savings of $16.6 billion over a decade.

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"All Americans stand to benefit in some way from this farm bill," House Speaker John Boehner said after the vote. "This is an improvement over current law, and there are no earmarks."

Savings of about $8 billion over 10 years come from cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. That is well below the $40 billion advocated by the Republican-led House, which would have been the largest reduction in a generation, but still double the amount originally supported by Senate Democrats.

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Liberal lawmakers decried the cut to the program, which goes to about 47 million low-income people to buy food and accounts for more than three-quarters of the farm bill's spending.

"This bill will make hunger worse in America," Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said on the House floor.

With congressional elections looming in November, Obama has highlighted programs such as food stamps and unemployment insurance as a way to combat the widening income gap in the United States.

Conservative pressure groups Heritage Action and Club for Growth said the bill was too expensive and had urged a "no" vote. They said they would include the results in their scorecards of members' voting records for 2014.

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The last farm bill, which passed in 2008, expired in September after being extended for one year while negotiators ironed out differences between measures approved in the House and Senate.

The legislation ends so-called direct payment subsidies, which for years have been doled out to farmers and landowners, to the tune of $5 billion a year, regardless of whether there was a need for support and whether the recipients actually grew crops.

Instead, agriculture insurance programs would be expanded to help producers manage risk. The bill also would establish permanent disaster assistance for livestock producers.

"We are particularly pleased with provisions to provide risk management to fruit and vegetable farmers and to support livestock farmers during disasters," the American Farm Bureau Federation said in a statement.

—By Reuters