story by Michael Tilley
Democrats and U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., will do all they can to make political hay with U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton’s vote Wednesday (Jan. 29) against the federal farm bill. And while Cotton, a Republican from Dardanelle, was the only member of Arkansas’ U.S. House delegation to post a ‘No’ vote, and while the bill was supported by the politically powerful Arkansas Farm Bureau, the political lines of the farm legislation are not as clear or as straight as the rows of a freshly planted soybean field.
Cotton and Pryor are locked in what has already become a testy and nationally-watched race for the U.S. Senate seat. Polls suggest that Pryor is vulnerable in his bid to seek a third term in the Senate.
The House approved the bill 251-166 on Wednesday. The bill is now expected to soon move for a Senate vote. U.S. Reps. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro, Tim Griffin of Little Rock and Steve Womack of Rogers – all Republicans – voted for the bill. Like he did with the initial House farm bill, Cotton voted against the latest version of the bill.
What was approved by the House was a compromise – conference report – between a farm bill package approved by the Senate and a different farm bill approved by the House.
A primary point of dispute with the farm bill has been over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is commonly referred to as the food stamp program. Senate leaders and the White House have objected to the deeper cuts in SNAP funding. House members, particularly more conservative members of the Republican caucus, have said the SNAP cuts did not go far enough, even calling for separate consideration of the program outside of the scope of farm bill. Cotton was one of the House members to call for SNAP to be considered separate from a farm bill.
The farm bill that emerged from a conference committee is designed to, according to the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, reform numerous agri programs and eliminate almost 100 programs that are considered duplicative.
Other aspects of the bill, according to the Senate committee, include:
• Repeals the direct payment program and strengthens risk management tools;
• Strengthens conservation efforts to protect land, water and wildlife for future generations;
• Maintains food assistance for families while addressing fraud and misuse in SNAP;
• Reduces the deficit by billions of dollars in mandatory spending;
• Strengthens and modernizes crop insurance programs;
• Provides a livestock disaster assistance program;
• Consolidates 23 conservation programs into 13 programs; and
• Seeks to boost export opportunities for U.S. farmers.
Pryor was quick to praise the House for approving the bill and quick to chastise Cotton for again being Arkansas’ only vote against the bill.
"This farm bill means good jobs and economic security for families across Arkansas, and I’ve stood beside my Republican colleagues John Boozman, Rick Crawford, Steve Womack and Tim Griffin to get this bipartisan bill done for the people of our state,” Pryor said in a statement. "In voting against the farm bill, Congressman Cotton once again sided with his special interest allies, the same Washington groups spending millions on his campaign that urged him to oppose the farm bill. It’s reckless and irresponsible for Congressman Cotton to put his own ambitions ahead of what's best for Arkansans, and the people of our state deserve better.”
Pryor noted several provisions of the bill that, if approved by the Senate, will protect Arkansas farmers. The provisions include prohibitions against the Environmental Protection Agency requiring landowners to acquire an additional permit to manage runoff from forest roads; makes the Livestock Disaster Assistance Program permanent to help Arkansas ranchers hit by severe weather or other natural disasters; and better promotes Arkansas farm products to foreign markets.
FARM BUREAU PUSH
The Arkansas Farm Bureau, which advertises that it represents more than 195,000 Arkansas farm families, supported the bill and lobbied for its passage. However, Bureau President Randy Veach, a row crop farmer from Mississippi County, said in a bureau statement that the bill wasn’t perfect.
“This is far from a perfect bill, but we do welcome the certainty it brings to farmers and ranchers,” Veach said in a statement issued after the vote. “Having a five-year program, as opposed to year-by-year or ad-hoc programs, was imperative, particularly as we go about making planting and livestock decisions for the coming year.”
He also said the farm bill preserved “the historic connection” between agri and federal nutrition programs.
“We believe that is a natural, and obvious, connection, where the production of food and the feeding of those in need are appropriately connected,” Veach said.
COTTON’S FARM VIEW
Cotton stuck to his belief that the bill is a budget buster and is not a good bill for Arkansas’ agri industry. He issued the following lengthy statement to explain his vote.
“Growing up on a farm in Yell County, I learned a simple lesson: you can’t spend more than you take in. That’s why I’ve worked hard to protect Arkansas taxpayers and that’s why I can’t support the food-stamp bill. This bill spends too much and leaves Arkansas farmers with too little. Arkansas farmers will receive barely 0.5% of its bloated $956 billion price tag — half of what they received in the 2008 bill. Also, it imposes unfair regulations on livestock producers, opening all Arkansas farmers to retaliatory tariffs. That’s one reason most livestock groups oppose the bill, as do countless Arkansas farmers I’ve heard from. And even a small dip in crop prices from the bill's historically high target prices could leave taxpayers on the hook for tens of billions of dollars.
“This bill can only be called a food-stamp bill when nearly 80% of its funding doesn’t support farmers. Food-stamp spending has grown by 86% under President Obama and enrollment is at a record high, while 70% of adults who receive food stamps have been on the program for more than 5 years. Yet this bill fails to make real reforms — lacking even common-sense work requirements that would provide job training to able-bodied adults receiving food stamps.
“Arkansas taxpayers cannot continue to foot the bill for President Obama’s failed policies and Arkansas farmers shouldn’t be held hostage to President Obama’s runaway food-stamp program. I will continue to fight for policies that support Arkansas farmers and protect Arkansas taxpayers.”
Cotton could have some political cover from prominent national trade associations who opposed the bill. Those groups include the American Meat Institute, the National Cattleman's Beef Association, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Turkey Federation and the North American Meat Association. Springdale-based Tyson Foods is a member of the National Chicken Council.
The core objection is several rules in the bill that the aforementioned beef and poultry groups say will harm their portion of the national agri industry. The new rules from the Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA), which is a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would create “a trial lawyers bonanza,” according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).
“Under the new definitions in the proposed rule, “competitive injury” and “likelihood of competitive injury” are re-defined and made so broad that mere accusations, without economic proof, will suffice for USDA or an individual to bring a lawsuit against a buyer (packer or processor),” the group noted on its website.
The NCBA also alleges that new GIPSA rules placed in the new farm bill remove economic incentives to produce higher quality beef products. The group also says the new farm bill will reduce the U.S. GDP by $14 billion, put 104,000 Americans out of work, increase retail prices by 3.33%, and reduce consumer demand by 1.68%.
“This Administration has already taken over the financial industry and the auto industry. They’ve passed a government-run health care plan and have taken over the student loan industry. Now the government is trying to dictate the way livestock producers market their animals,” notes the NCBA.
The groups also opposed Country-of-Origin labeling (COOL) rules they say will open the meat markets up to costly trade tiffs with Canada and Mexico.
"North American Meat Association is extremely concerned that Congress has refused to resolve these critical issues. Without these provisions, we are forced to aggressively oppose the Farm Bill," NAMA CEO Barry Carpenter said in a Jan. 28 statement. "This failure to address COOL also makes it imperative that the U.S. government push the WTO to expedite its process in order to provide the certainty necessary for the industry to move forward."
Although he supported the bill, Womack, a Republican from Rogers, criticized GIPSA in his statement (see video below) prior to the vote.
Womack noted in his Floor speech: “Because of the senate’s my-way-or-the-highway attitude, we are considering a conference report that does nothing to address an out-of-control agency, GIPSA, from imposing on companies regulations that go well beyond Congressional intent. Because of the Senate’s all-or-nothing approach, we are considering a conference report that will subject american industry and companies to retaliatory tariffs.
“For me, it would be easy to vote against this conference report. But unlike my Senate counterparts, I recognize that – in divided government – each side has to find common ground. Ultimately, this report – like many of the other bipartisan agreements that have been signed into law – moves the ball forward by making much-needed reforms to federal programs and reducing spending.
“That’s why, in the end, I will support it.”