FOOD, CONSERVATION, AND ENERGY ACT OF 2008--Resumed -- (Senate - May 14, 2008)
BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT
Mr. ROBERTS. Mr. President, the hour is late. Obviously, the galleries are very nervous and full of people who wish to go home. The aggie press covering this momentous event is tired, writing furiously, as I was. And the chairman of the committee, we are trying his patience as he has been sitting here all these hours listening to members of his committee discuss the farm bill. I thank the chairman for his perseverance. I thank the distinguished ranking member, Senator Chambliss, who, I understand, like Elvis, has left the building, but his presence is still here. So I shall try to be brief.
I rise today to speak on the farm bill conference agreement and, most importantly, to stand up and support production agriculture. I want to associate myself with the remarks of the Senator from Arkansas who gave a very good speech on the value of production agriculture. Apparently our Nation enjoys, but too many times simply does not appreciate, whether it be the national media or some in this Congress or whether it be observers of agriculture program policy, the modern-day miracle known as U.S. agriculture. That used to be a staple of all agriculture speeches. I think we need to repeat it--the modern miracle that provides the cheapest and highest quality food supply in the world.
We have heard claims throughout the debate that since commodity prices are high, we don't need farm programs. That has been in the print of many a newspaper and the subject of several topics within the national media, on television, radio. Those who would make these claims do not understand agriculture or the challenges our farmers and ranchers face. I doubt seriously if they have ever set foot on any farm ground. Prices were high in the past and, as quickly as they rose, they fell. We could very well see history repeat itself. This is precisely why we need a farm bill to begin with, a farm bill that provides an adequate safety net so producers can compete in the global marketplace, producers especially in high-risk States such as Kansas, who contribute so much, 350 million bushels of wheat a year, maybe 400 million, and many other grain products, a big beef State.
These producers may barely scrape by for 2, 3, 4, and even 5 years due to inclement weather. High-risk agriculture is what we call it. But the benefits are great. Then 1 year they make it big. When they do, they are able to pay down some debt and maybe upgrade the equipment they have been using for 15 years or they can take their wife and kids on the first vacation they have been able to afford in years to take time to enjoy. Yet as soon as they get a little bit of breathing room, unfortunately, some in the media and other critics claim our producers are taking advantage of taxpayers, and they are getting rich, especially farms that farm a lot of acres. It seems to me now that we have a new criteria. If you are a large farmer, meaning if you farm a large number of acres, you are automatically rich, which is simply not the case. What other business do you know of that can sustain such prolonged periods of loss only to hold out for 1 year of reprieve? That is why we need a safety net in our farm programs. That is it in a nutshell, to help producers weather the storms of instability in the marketplace.
It is the deficiency in the safety net protections for wheat and sorghum, our producers of sorghum and wheat in this conference agreement, that does give me pause. That certainly doesn't come as any surprise to any member of the committee who has taken the time to listen to this member. As a Senator from a State with high-risk agriculture, many of our current farm programs simply don't work for my farmers when they have no crop to harvest. This is especially true of target prices and loan rates. However, two programs have worked. In recent years direct payments, which should be called safety net payments and crop insurance, have been a lifeline for Kansas farmers and their lenders. Yet title I of this agreement increases target prices and loan rates, the same programs that do not help producers when disaster strikes and they have no crop to harvest, while at the same time cutting the safety net payments or what is called a direct payment and crop insurance.
Back in 2002, we discovered that the countercyclical program, when we were considering that bill and I made the same speech on the floor at that particular time, would not have provided assistance in 9 of the previous 17 years in Kansas. That is over half the time. My question was, why support a farm bill that does not help your State, one of the biggest producing States in over half the number of years as we went back the 17 years? And those 9 years represented some of our toughest years in regard to weather in that period. Since that time, because of a prolonged drought and late-season freezes, the countercyclical and the loan programs have simply failed to provide assistance to Kansas producers, even when they didn't get a crop. Direct payments or safety net payments and crop insurance did provide the support.
Unfortunately, these key programs are treated as a bank in the conference report. Even though both the House and Senate passed bills that kept this direct payment completely intact, the conference report reduces this producer support in years 2009, 2010, and 2011. Some of my colleagues here and in the House have stated publicly they would like to see the direct payment ended altogether and rely on the countercyclical program. Again, it simply has not worked in most of the years that it has been in effect on behalf of my State of Kansas. These statements did create an atmosphere in which moving forward was difficult and at times very frustrating. Thankfully, we were able to protect salvage farmers who were getting ready to head into the fields and harvest their 2008 winter wheat crop.
I am pleased the conferees worked with me and with others to ensure that our producers would not face cuts to these direct payments in 2008. Long ago these producers signed operating notes with their lenders for this crop year. They should not have the rules of the game changed now. I am pleased we prevented that from happening.
Historically we had kept the crop insurance legislation separate from the farm bill, but that changed in 2002. Unfortunately, it does continue in this bill. I think it should be a separate bill. I remember all the hard work Senator Bob Kerrey and I worked on in regard to that bill. It was separate then. Perhaps we can do that down the road. Last time around we took $2 billion out of crop insurance. I warned at that time that that was a dangerous road to take. This time the crop insurance program offers close to $6 billion for the benefit of other programs in the bill. So we are taking from crop insurance, using it as a bank for other programs. This is going to have an effect on producers and providers, and don't let anybody tell you differently. While these cuts may not unravel the program in low-risk States, they are dangerously close to doing so in high-risk States. You know very well I am talking about doing an excellent job of representing Colorado, the neighboring State, to the west.
I am also concerned our producers will have to pay their premiums earlier, beginning in 2011. This means they may have to secure credit to cover the payment. I am hopeful that since we have a few years before this takes effect, we can get it fixed before it does hit farmers on their balance sheets.
Notwithstanding my concerns for the commodity and the crop insurance sections of this bill, let me emphasize that there are strong, positive provisions in this conference report that will go a long way to benefit not only Kansas but the entire Nation. I thank Finance Committee Chairman Baucus and Ranking Member Grassley and their staffs for fighting so hard to ensure that the tax title of the Senate bill remained in the conference report.
I am honored to serve on the Finance Committee under their leadership, just as I am honored to serve on the Agriculture Committee. They often take hits from all corners around here because of their efforts to work together. But it is because of their bipartisanship that we have been able to show the American people that we can work together to get things done in Washington.
They have fashioned an agricultural tax relief package that provides targeted tax relief for farmers and ranchers. It encourages significant investments in conservation, it decreases our reliance on foreign energy, and it invests in our rural communities.
Of particular importance to many of us is a provision that does correct an inequity in the Tax Code that harms retired and disabled farmers when they receive the Conservation Reserve Program payments. I and many others on both sides of the aisle have worked for years to get this fixed.
We also help agricultural businesses manage the growing costs of securing agricultural pesticides and fertilizers. While important to farmers and agricultural businesses, these can also be used for illegal purposes. They have in the past, including the manufacture of explosives, and other drugs very harmful, more especially to young people. Those of us in the heartland who remember the attack on Oklahoma City in 1995 know this risk all too well. Having served on the Intelligence Committee, I know all too well about this risk.
Also included in this title is important tax assistance for a community called Greensburg, KS. Ten days go, we marked the 1-year anniversary of the EF-5 tornado--a mile and a half wide--an EF-5 tornado that literally wiped the town off the Kansas prairie. I have seen tornado damage. Serving in the Armed Services, I have seen tornado damage. I have never seen anything like this, destroying literally 95 percent of this community of 1,500 people. The grade school, high school, city hall, hospital, water tower, fire station, every church, and all but three businesses in the town were completely destroyed. Lives were lost in this storm.
In the aftermath of this devastation, Senator Brownback and I put together a very modest and temporary tax relief bill to help residents and small businesses pick up the pieces and rebuild Greensburg. This tax relief mirrors many of the same provisions Congress approved to help those affected by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.
Some in the House actually questioned why this legislation was necessary and why it belonged on a farm bill. It belonged in the farm bill because this is a rural development and rural revitalization issue. The provisions in the package will help residents rebuild the 1,000 homes that were damaged or destroyed and will help the 113 small businesses in Greensburg to rebuild and grow their businesses.
This tax legislation represents exactly what our Government should do to help in times of extreme need, and it belongs in this bill. Frankly, the House should have passed it a year ago, as the Senate did originally on May 25, 2007.
The tax title of this conference report is a solid win for rural America, and it is a major reason why I will support this legislation--despite my concerns with the commodity title and crop insurance, which I have already gone over.
I also thank the chairman of the Agriculture Committee and the ranking member, Senator Chambliss, for working with me to address my concerns with regard to the Rural Utilities Service's broadband loan program. The reforms included here represent a rare bipartisan and consensus-driven effort to bring broadband Internet to more Americans.
As has been noted by others, the conference report makes significant investments in conservation programs that are popular in Kansas, such as EQIP and the Open Fields program that Senator Conrad and I have been working on for years.
I am also pleased to see the investments made in nutrition policy, specifically the provisions which encourage our schoolchildren to eat more whole grain foods. Whole grain products are an excellent source of fiber and provide nutrients that help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Finally, the bill includes two sections that are extremely important to Kansas.
First, through the livestock title of this bill, we have ensured that competition is protected in the marketplace and that producers will continue to be able to market their livestock as they see fit. I am also pleased the livestock title allows for the implementation of the COOL program, the country-of-origin labeling program, in a way that does not require additional burdensome paperwork on our producers in the beef industry. The beef industry is nearly a $6-billion-a-year industry in Kansas. The livestock title of the bill helps us ensure it will continue to be an important part of our State's economy.
The research title of this bill also includes an important provision to allow DHS to continue plans to build a new National Bio and AgroDefense Facility, NBAF.
The research that will be conducted at this facility will be crucial in protecting our livestock and commodity industries, human health, and the overall health of our Nation's economy. I thank the chairman and ranking member for helping to ensure this provision was included in the conference report.
So, Mr. President, as I have said before, this is not the best possible bill. But it may be--and I think is--the best bill possible under extremely difficult circumstances. Certainly the chairman understands that.
While I am not pleased with the way our Kansas wheat and sorghum producers are treated in this bill, I am worried that no farm bill or revisiting the farm bill in the next year or two may lead to an even less desirable outcome.
You have heard of ``The Last Picture Show.'' This may be ``The Last Farm Bill.'' The fact is that we do have important provisions in this bill. We also have producers who, in a few short days or weeks, will be in the fields harvesting their 2008 winter wheat crops. They need--no, they deserve the predictability and stability of a long-term bill. It is time to let them know the rules of the game.
I wish, Mr. Chairman, we could seek unanimous consent simply to pass the bill tonight and thereby relieve the President of any decision he might have to make in terms of a possible veto, even though the vote in the House was certainly overwhelming on behalf of the bill.
With that, I thank my chairman for his patience.
I thank you, Mr. President, for your patience.
I yield the floor.