Rejecting arguments that it was a “step backward” to policies that had failed in the past, the Senate voted 64-35 to approve the House-Senate farm bill conference report and send it to President Bush for his signature.
Opponents of the measure, mostly Republicans, tried to tar the new farm bill with every brush imaginable, but Senate members seemed more ready to move ahead with the legislation so the nation's farmers can begin receiving the assistance they need after more than four years of low prices and disastrous weather.
Some criticized it for spending too much money; others charged it would lead to overproduction of crops; and still others repeated the claims that it funneled large amounts of money to wealthy farming operations.
“I think it is a good bill, a bill that is good for all of America,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who led the fight for passage of the report. “Is it a perfect bill? No, it's not perfect. I dare say there isn't a senator here who could not find some fault with it.
“But keep in mind it is a comprehensive bill for America and for our future. The bill comprises a number of different parts that enable us to turn the corner for agriculture.”
Harkin was answering the criticism of senators such as fellow Iowan Charles Grassley, author of the Grassley-Dorgan payment limits amendment in the original Senate farm bill, who along with Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana asked for the nearly two days of debate on the conference report.
“It's a good bill if you are a cotton and rice producer,” said Grassley. “The problem is we don't grow those commodities in my state of Iowa. I plan to vote with the family farmers from Iowa.”
Harkin agreed that not every region got exactly what it wanted in a new farm bill, but every region got something to help its farmers, some including specialty crop producers for the first time, he said. He disagreed with claims that the new bill did nothing to address payment limits, noting that the limit was reduced from $550,000 in the House farm bill to $360,000 in the conference report.
Major farm organizations hailed the Senate's action and asked the president to sign the bill as quickly as possible so that Agriculture Department officials can begin implementing it.
“With the president's signature, our nation's cotton growers can regain a measure of optimism as they go about the planting of their 2002 crops,” said National Cotton Council Chairman Kenneth Hood. “Today's Senate action is certainly welcomed by all U.S. cotton industry segments from growers to textile manufacturers.”
“This legislation allows farmers the certainty of an improved safety net for the next six years,” said Dave Frederickson, president of the National Farmers Union. “It is not a perfect bill, but it is an important bill that will improve current law.”
In 12 hours of debate on the farm bill, Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, and others said the new farm bill would reverse the progress made by Freedom to Farm and bring back “government control of agriculture.”
But Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and leader on the Senate side in the farm bill conference committee, said the new legislation can help “turn the corner” on the years of economic turmoil created by passage of the 1996 farm bill or Freedom to Farm.
“In commodities, we strengthen income,” Harkin said in closing the two days of debate. “We provide stability and predictability. We've ended Freedom to Farm. Freedom to Farm was built on a two-legged stool of low loan rates and AMTA payments. This bill puts four legs under that stool — higher loan rates, target price, direct payments and conservation.
“Four strong legs by which we support and enhance our farmers' livelihoods.”
The NCC's Hood said the farm bill includes many of the principles that were recommended by Cotton Council delegates, including an effective marketing loan and a combination of fixed and counter-cyclical payments.
“The absence of the counter-cyclical program under the FAIR act left growers badly exposed to low prices on the New York Board of Trade,” said Hood, a cotton producer from Gunnison, Miss.
For cotton, the new farm bill includes a 6.67 cent per pound fixed payment, a 72.4 cent counter-cyclical or target price and a 52 cent per pound base loan rate. It also makes a fixed decoupled payment on 85 percent of the enrolled base, and the counter-cyclical payment also is made on 85 percent of the base calculation.
A National Cotton Council analysis found that assuming a cotton grower has program yield equal to actual yield, the least a grower should expected to receive on an “average” pound of cotton is 69.9 cents when this farm bill is implemented by USDA.
Hood praised Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota for pulling the Senate bill together and Sens. Zell Miller of Georgia and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas for their support of the farm bill process and of cotton's issues specifically. The NCC also commended Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas for their leadership on the Republican side of the Senate Agriculture Committee and Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana and John Edwards of North Carolina for their work in getting the Step 2 threshold eliminated.
Hutchinson, who is expected to face a difficult election challenge this year, said the new farm bill “has been a long time in coming, and it is desperately needed by our country's farmers. Since last year, our farmers have been waiting to see if they will be able to continue farming as a way of life — hoping that Congress would do the right thing, and provide them with the safety net that they need to continue.”