FOOD, CONSERVATION, AND ENERGY ACT OF 2008--CONFERENCE REPORT -- (Senate - May 15, 2008)
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Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I urge my colleagues in the Senate to join me in supporting final passage of the farm bill conference report.
I would like to thank the Senator from Iowa, Mr. Harkin, for his leadership in crafting this 5 year, $289 billion bill, which, for the first time, directs more than two-thirds of the spending towards nutrition and food assistance. It provides a strong safety net for farmers, and gives them the certainty needed in a sector that provides an important human resource--food--amidst the unpredictable dynamics of weather and markets. The bill provides stronger financial support for conservation programs and needed improvements for livestock producers when dealing with the packing industry.
It is not a perfect bill, but it is a good bill. Of particular note is $10 billion in new spending for food assistance programs for low-income individuals, which is particularly timely in this period of high food prices. Potential recipients are no longer disqualified because of child care or if they have money saved in tax-deferred education or health care accounts. For the first time, food assistance is indexed for inflation, and for the first time in 30 years, the minimum monthly benefit is increased from $10 to $14. This is good news and will help reach more of the 35 million Americans who struggle each day to feed their children and families.
The bill provides $4 billion in new conservation spending, with greater focus on working lands. It provides a more fiscally responsive approach to disaster assistance funding by establishing a permanent program.
The bill also recognizes our national priority to begin shifting to greater production of cellulosic ethanol as part of our biofuels mix. The bill includes an important tax incentive for cellulosic ethanol production--first proposed by my colleague from Indiana, Dick Lugar, and myself. There are also several incentives that will help to establish croplands dedicated to cellulosic feedstock production, and concurrent research and development towards these objectives.
I am particularly pleased that this legislation includes a program authored by my esteemed senior colleague from Illinois, Mr. Durbin, which creates a new optional revenue-based program for farmers, called the average crop revenue election, a forward-thinking initiative that will help Midwestern corn growers.
No, this bill does not include the level of reform to farm programs that I think was warranted. I believe that the payment and income limitations could have gone much further. The bill does, however, provide long overdue improvements to existing law. It stops the remarkable practice of sending payments to deceased farmers. It ends the so-called three entity rule, which was the abuse of manipulating current law by collecting triple payments. It requires direct attribution of farm payments to a person, rather than a company or an entity. And it refocuses the original intent of farm payments to serve as a safety net to those who need it most by ending payments to individuals who make more than $750,000 in farm income or $500,000 in nonfarm income.
And this bill provides important relief to America's black farmers. For far too long, our country's hardworking African-American farmers were discriminated against by the Federal Government and county committees, which denied them credit and benefit programs because of their race. This injustice ran deep and had devastating effects.
Because so many of these farmers were denied credit and benefits, the number of African American farmers from 1920 until the early 1990s declined by almost 98 percent. During this time, too many African-American farmers saw their land foreclosed upon or were forced out of farming altogether.
In 1999, the Department of Agriculture settled a class action lawsuit with African-American farmers in the case of Pigford v. Glickman, which allowed many of these farmers to file claims against the USDA for failing to respond to racial discrimination. A Federal court approved this settlement as ``a good first step towards assuring that this kind of discrimination that has been visited on African American farmers since Reconstruction will not continue into the next century.'' This Pigford settlement brought relief to more than 20,000 Black farmers.
Yet the USDA underestimated the number of potential claimants and gave inadequate notice to farmers about the Pigford settlement. Therefore, many farmers were unable to file their claims before the filing deadline. About 75,000 additional African-American farmers who filed their claims of discrimination after the filing deadline were denied any opportunity to have their claims heard and evaluated on the merits.
That is why I introduced legislation in the Senate to provide tens of thousands of eligible late Pigford claimants a right to go to court and have their cases heard. Thanks to bipartisan support by the Senate Agriculture Committee, this legislation is included in the conference report before us today.
Again, I thank Senator Harkin for his efforts on this important legislation, and I call on my colleagues to support it.