FOOD, CONSERVATION, AND ENERGY ACT OF 2008--CONFERENCE REPORT -- (Senate - May 14, 2008)
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Mr. CHAMBLISS. Madam President, I thank my colleague from Iowa, Senator Harkin. This truly has, under his leadership, been a very bipartisan effort. As we will see on the floor tonight and tomorrow, there will be some folks on both sides of the aisle who will have a lot of good things to say about this bill. Not everybody is in agreement with it, but we never have total agreement on farm bills. They are always controversial. They always contain provisions that some Members of the Senate don't like, but by and large this bill is a true bipartisan bill. I wish to commend Senator Harkin for his leadership, and not just on the substance of the bill. During the conference process we went through, the Senate stayed in lockstep. All Members, all conferees on the Senate side, Republican and Democratic, remained loyal to the commitment we made to each other as we went through that conference, and I think it was for that reason that we were successful in producing a product that somewhat mirrors the product that came out of this Senate back in December. So I thank Senator Harkin for his leadership and for his commitment to American agriculture.
I rise tonight in support of the farm bill conference report before us. The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 provides certainty to America's farmers and ranchers and restates the strong commitment of Congress to the hungry and less fortunate. This farm bill contains the most significant reform of our farm programs in recent memory, if not history, and increases investments in the areas of nutrition, specialty crops, conservation, and renewable energy. It is no wonder that nutrition groups, food bank organizations, conservation and wildlife groups, commodity organizations, cattlemen and ranchers, renewable energy advocates, and specialty crop producers have all united in strong support of this farm bill.
This bill is simply the single most important piece of legislation for rural America and the small American towns and communities whose economic engines depend on agriculture. To reject this bill is to leave billions of economic development investments on the table and accept the faulty notion that currently high commodity prices will exist forever. Every farmer knows there is no certainty in the honorable practice of farming. This farm bill is our commitment to provide them with much-needed economic assistance when times are bad and allow them to prosper without our assistance when times are good. Our farm safety net is targeted, fiscally responsible, and will ensure the prosperity of our farmers and ranchers during the tough economic times that are certainly to come.
Yes, this bill helps maintain a safety net for the farmers and ranchers who produce the food on our dinner tables and the fiber for the shirts on our back. I simply do not understand the critics who raise their arms in protest because we attempt to help farmers in this farm bill. Given the amount of investments in the many critical areas to all Americans in this bill, it is actually inaccurate to simply call this a farm bill. I wish to point out to the critics that less than one-fifth of the bill's spending goes toward the production of agricultural programs. Furthermore, all the commodity programs in the commodity title combined account for a mere .29 percent of the entire outlays of the Federal Government spending. That is almost one-quarter of 1 percent. Many are attempting to paint a picture of a bloated bill that provides huge subsidies to large farmers, but the facts present a different picture of how the money is actually allocated. Commodity program spending in this bill represents less than 14 percent of the total spending, while conservation, nutrition, and renewable energy spending account for more than 75 percent of the bill.
There is a common misperception in many editorial boardrooms, and unfortunately at the White House, that the 2008 farm bill does not include adequate reform of our current farm programs. This misperception has led to a series of negative news articles accusing our farm safety net of hindering African cotton trade, raising food prices domestically and globally, providing payments to millionaire farmers who abuse the system, and eroding our ability to provide food aid to the neediest Americans and citizens of other countries. This series of negative and inaccurate propaganda has culminated in a veto threat from the President. I stand before this body tonight to clearly state that this bill contains sweeping reforms of which all Americans can be proud. Drastic reforms are included in this bill to make sure nonfarmers do not benefit from the farm safety net. We rightfully believe the farm safety net should be used to help those who take on an enormous risk every year to produce the crops and livestock that sustain the food supply of our country.
While we disagree with many of the attacks against our farm safety net, we have nonetheless heard the calls for reform and have responded in several meaningful ways. The traditional cotton program has been reformed so that it is more market oriented per our WTO--World Trade Organization--- commitments. The GSM program has been reformed to honor our obligations under the cotton case that was decided last year. The adjusted gross income test for nonfarmers has been reduced by 80 percent, ensuring that farm program benefits are targeted to those who need them most. In addition, this bill eliminates the three-entity rule, adopts direct attribution for farm program payments, and eliminates base acres on land developed for residential use. These accomplishments represent the most significant reform of the farm safety net in the history of farm bills in this country.
Conservation programs are vital to the farm bill and to this Nation's farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners. Working land--the cropland, grazing land, and forest land that is used to produce our food, feed, and fiber--accounts for nearly 1.3 billion acres or two-thirds of the Nation's land area. Since the enactment of the 2002 farm bill, conservation measures have been applied on more than 70 million acres of cropland and 125 million acres of grazing lands. In addition, more than 1 million acres of wetlands have been created, restored or enhanced.
This farm bill continues its great tradition of protecting working lands by providing producers $4 billion in new resources for conservation programs. In addition to providing new funding, the farm bill also makes numerous improvements to the programs to ensure they meet the needs of producers. One notable improvement is that the environmental quality incentives program will now be available to private forest landowners. It also looks to the future by helping producers and landowners play a role and get credit for mitigating climate change.
In the 2002 farm bill, an energy title was included for the first time, and the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act furthers our commitment to meeting America's energy needs with alternative forms of energy. All Americans must cope with today's extraordinarily high gas prices, and with this farm bill, we take the necessary steps to alleviate the pressure not only on petroleum-based gasoline but on corn-based ethanol. One day, Americans will be able to fill their gas tanks with ethanol made from woodchips or peanut hulls, and when that day comes, you can look back to this farm bill as the foundation for making that a reality.
Speaking of energy, I have heard calls from several of my colleagues to ensure that contracts traded on electronic exchanges, such as natural gas contracts traded on the ICE Futures, are subject to more regulatory oversight by the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. In responding to those concerns, this conference report includes a long-overdue reauthorization of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, complete with a newly developed regulatory structure for contracts traded on exempt commercial markets that are determined to perform a significant price discovery function. This has been a top priority for Senators Feinstein, Levin, and Snowe, and I am pleased we were able to include it in this farm bill.
This farm bill also includes a new title devoted to horticulture organic production. With specialty crops representing approximately 50 percent of U.S. crop cash receipts, the inclusion of this title appropriately recognizes that fruit and vegetable growers deserve a place in major farm legislation. This industry is vitally important to consumers, and the inclusion of these provisions will ensure that producers of fruits and vegetables receive the support necessary to enhance the healthy foods we have come to demand, as well as improve the viability of this important sector of American agriculture.
However, rural America is not the only beneficiary of this farm bill. The entire country will reap the rewards of increased investments in nutrition, renewable energy, and conservation. This legislation reaches out to low-income Americans to ensure nutritional needs are met by providing schoolchildren with increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables and enhancing our investments to the Food Stamp Program as well as to food banks all across America. The numbers speak for themselves: 73 percent--let me say that again--73 percent of the spending in this bill goes toward our domestic nutrition programs. Given rising food prices and the skyrocketing price of oil, it is critical that we lend a hand to those citizens in both rural and urban America who are struggling to feed their families and fill their gas tanks.
Local food banks around the country are facing increased demands for food from people in need. This farm bill invests an additional $1.25 billion over the next 10 years to increase commodity purchases for food banks--an increase of nearly double the current level of funding. To help improve the dietary intake of all citizens, this farm bill invests significant resources to expand the school-based fresh fruit and vegetable snack program to all States and increases support for the senior farmers' market nutrition program to help seniors purchase agricultural products at farmers' markets, roadside stands, and other community-supported agricultural programs.
Most significant, though, is the increased investment in the Food Stamp Program. The Food Stamp Program--the cornerstone of our country's domestic food assistance effort--currently serves 28 million Americans each month. This program has evolved over the decades to become one of the most efficient tools to combat hunger and reduce poverty. The Food Stamp Program now has one of the best track records among all Federal programs. The payment accuracy rate, which measures the correct level of benefit issuance to participating households, is at an all-time high. Trafficking, which long plagued the program, has been substantially reduced. Also, the certification process has a proven success rate with over 98 percent of food stamp participants properly eligible for benefits. American taxpayers can be assured that the resources dedicated to this program are effectively used for their intended purposes.
While administration of the Food Stamp Program has turned a corner, a stigma still exists that prevents some eligible people from seeking the help they need. Even though the implementation of Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, has restored dignity to those who depend on food assistance while at the grocery store, the term ``food stamps'' conjures up negative images for many. Food stamps haven't been issued in years, and the Federal Government destroyed the remaining inventory of stamps in 2003. For these reasons, the Food Stamp Program is being renamed as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The new name better reflects the mission of our country's premier domestic assistance program. Instead of referring to food stamps in the future, the term ``food SNAP'' should be used as we transition to the new name.
This farm bill invests $8 billion in food SNAP over the next 10 years. By increasing the standard deduction and minimum monthly benefit, food SNAP will provide improved benefit levels to help low-income families put nutritious food on the table. To make food SNAP more accessible to low-income Americans, this farm bill indexes the asset limitation for inflation, exempts IRS-approved retirement and education savings accounts from the asset test, and permits a full deduction for childcare expenses. Simplified reporting requirements are extended to low-income seniors to ease their ability to obtain benefits. The improvements made in this farm bill will ensure that food SNAP continues to improve the health and nutritional well-being of millions of people in need.
Rural development is also a vital part of this 2008 farm bill. Rural America is not composed of farmers and ranchers only, but other hard-working men and women reside in these areas with their families. It is essential our rural citizens have the same opportunity to participate in the global economy as our friends in urban areas.
This title helps deploy fundamental services, such as improving broadband Internet capability, funding for water and waste projects, and support for the value-added efforts. We promote economic development by reestablishing regional planning authorities and encouraging communities to collaborate in their efforts to attract quality jobs and promote local investment.
I say to my colleagues, this bill before you today is a significant and worthwhile investment, not only for American agriculture but for millions of needy Americans. I am disheartened that the President doesn't find these investments worthy of his signature, but I must represent my constituents who do understand the need for a strong safety net for our farmers and ranchers. Rural America is certainly enjoying a period of economic prosperity. But history tells us this prosperity will not last forever and that it is our moral obligation to be there to lend a helping hand when the downturn comes. We have the opportunity today to display our unwavering commitment to the Nation's farmers and ranchers who supply us with the safest, most affordable and most nutritious food supply in the world. I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting this investment in America's future by voting for the bill.
In closing, before I turn to my good friend and colleague from New Hampshire, I again thank Chairman Harkin for his leadership. I also see Senator Conrad on the Senate floor. We have had a terrific working relationship through this process. Senator Baucus and Senator Grassley have played such an integral role in making sure this farm bill has the resources with which to stay within the budget numbers we were given.
This has truly been a bipartisan effort in the Senate and is the reason, or an exhibition of the reason, I came to the Senate, which is to work together with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass positive legislation and improve the quality of life for men and women all across America.
I, too, will talk more about staff tomorrow. I would be remiss, though, if I didn't recognize Mark Halverson, who has been such a great asset in working on this bill and working with my staff. He traveled around the country with us 2 years ago, and we tried to feed him a good Nebraska steak a couple of times and made sure he was healthy while he was on the road with us. We had a great time in listening to the farmers and ranchers. Martha Scott Poindexter, on my side, has been the minority director and has done such a terrific job, No. 1, of not just shepherding this bill from our perspective and working with the majority side, but also in putting together, without question, in my opinion, the best staff we have ever had on our side of the aisle from an Agriculture Committee perspective.
Mr. President, I look forward to further discussion of this bill tomorrow, as we move ahead. I know a number of our colleagues will be coming on the Senate floor tonight to talk about this bill. I encourage folks on our side of the aisle, if you want to come tonight and speak, it is a good time to do it because you can have all the time you want. Tomorrow it will get cramped. I encourage colleagues from the minority side to come out tonight and make their word heard.
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