Farm bill passes House after years of disagreement

After years of setbacks, a nearly $100 billion-a-year compromise farm bill cleared the House on Wednesday despite strong opposition from conservatives who sought a bigger cut in food stamps.

The five-year bill, which preserves generous crop subsidies, heads to the Senate, where approval seems certain. The White House said President Barack Obama would sign H.R. 2642, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013, also known as the Farm Bill.

The measure, which the House approved 251-166, had backing from the Republican leadership team, even though it makes smaller cuts to food stamps than they would have liked.

The six Louisiana congressmen voted 4-2 on the bill.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, did not cast a vote on the bill, a commonplace practice for a speaker, but he had issued a statement Monday saying it was “worthy of the House’s support.”

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., voted for the bill despite concerns from some in her caucus that the bill cut too much from the food stamp program.

The bill ultimately would cut about $800 million a year from the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program, or about 1 percent. The legislation also would continue to heavily subsidize major crops for the nation’s farmers while eliminating some subsidies and shifting them toward more politically defensible insurance programs.

The legislation would eliminate a $4.5 billion-a-year farm subsidy called direct payments, which are paid to farmers whether they farm or not.

But the bill nonetheless would continue to heavily subsidize major crops — corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton — while shifting many of those subsidies toward insurance programs. That means farmers would have to incur losses before they could get a payout.

The almost $100 billion-a-year bill would save about $1.65 billion annually overall, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The amount was less than the $2.3 billion annual savings the agriculture committees originally projected for the bill.

Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, voted for the Farm Bill, saying it was widely supported by the Louisiana agricultural community and saves taxpayers about $23 billion in federal spending.

Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., R-Lafayette, said in a prepared statement that he supported the Farm Bill partly because it strengthens the federal crop insurance program and reauthorizes the current sugar program at no cost to taxpayers.

Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain said one of the key features of the bill was its shift of emphasis from direct subsidies to farmers based on crops they grow to more flexible crop insurance.

The policies are required by bankers who finance the costs of planting and harvesting crops. Insurance, generally, repays the basic costs taken on by farmers — and financed by the banks — should the crop be lost from disasters such as hurricanes and droughts.

About 4,000 Louisiana farmers would benefit, he said.

Many House conservatives still voted against the bill — 63 Republicans opposed it, one more than in June.

But 89 Democrats supported it, bolstered by the lower cut in food stamps.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D_New Orleans, whose district stretches up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and includes much of Baton Rouge, said he voted for the comprehensive Farm Bill because it would provide stability for many. “I am disappointed with the cuts made to the SNAP program; however, today’s bill was a major improvement over the deep cuts supported by the House Republican leadership,” he said.

The Farm Bill also appropriated money for various programs and projects. About $20 million is to be spent on research of citrus diseases and another $20 million for a feral hog eradication program, Strain said.

Mark Ballard, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, and Darlene Superville, of The Associated Press, contributed to this report.