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Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012--Motion to Proceed

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, before speaking about moving forward on the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act, I want to thank our leader. I also want to thank Senator Mikulski. Together we have brought forward the issue of equal pay for equal work, and we intend to focus on that until we make this truly the law of the land.

Mr. President, I rise today to urge my colleagues to allow us to proceed to the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act, commonly known as the farm bill. I first want to thank my friend, colleague, and partner as we moved through the committee process, Senator Roberts. It has been terrific working with my ranking member and his staff. We worked in a truly bipartisan way. I think that is reflected in the fact that this bill came out of committee with a strong bipartisan vote of 16 Members and only 5 dissenting. We are looking forward to working with all of our colleagues on the floor of the Senate to have this same kind of strong bipartisan vote as we move through the process in the Senate.

There are 16 million people in this country who have a job that relies on the strength of American agriculture. The farm bill is a jobs bill. Over the last few years when our Nation's economy has seen some very rough times, agriculture has been one of the few bright spots. In fact, in Michigan, during our toughest times in manufacturing, agriculture was growing five times faster than any other part of our economy. Agriculture is one of the only parts of the economy with a trade surplus. I think it is, in fact, our No. 1 trade surplus with $42.5 billion in trade surplus.

We are growing it here, we are processing it here, developing it here, selling it overseas, but the jobs are here. This farm bill is all about keeping it that way. Last year our farmers exported $136 billion worth of goods, which is a 270-percent increase in the last 10 years. This is about jobs, and we want to continue our leadership not only in this country but internationally in agriculture through this important bill.

We also know our country is facing serious deficits. Last August the Senate passed the Budget Control Act by a vote of 74 to 26. That law created a deficit reduction committee, which we called the supercommittee. They set out a process to find significant savings, and I am very proud of the fact that the Agriculture Committee came together in the House and the Senate. The chairman and the ranking member in the House--along with me and the ranking member in the Senate--did some very tough negotiating and made tough decisions, worked long hours, and came up with a detailed deficit reduction plan. I wish we had that same kind of opportunity with every committee.

Unfortunately, in the end, the Agriculture Committee was the only committee that did that. We did our part, and we believe the work we did in the fall helped to not only build relationships that are important to allow us to work together, but also set up a foundation from which we have written what we call the farm bill, or the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act.

We have built into this bill a real deficit reduction of $23 billion. Let me emphasize that the Agriculture Committee passed a bipartisan bill that strengthens the economy and cuts the Federal deficit. This $23 billion is roughly 2 percent of what the Budget Control Act put in place in terms of sequestration next January of $1.2 trillion. We are roughly 2 percent of Federal outlays. In those efforts are agriculture production, conservation, and nutrition through the UFDA.

The UFDA is roughly 2 percent of Federal outlays. We are taking responsibility for 2 percent of the cuts, and this is more than is actually required in the Budget Control Act, and it is double what was recommended in Simpson-Bowles and the Gang of 6.

So agriculture is doing its fair share, and we are doing it in a responsible way that focuses on reform and strengthening those efforts to make sure we have a strong agricultural economy, strong conservation practices, and support for jobs through energy and other important nutrition efforts.

We end direct payments. That means no more paying farmers for crops they don't grow and no more payments for farmers when they are already doing very well. In fact, the biggest savings in the bill comes from eliminating direct payments and consolidating three other commodity subsidy programs. America's farmers know in order to lower the deficit we all need to do our fair share. Agriculture has stepped up and is willing to do that.

We also make sure millionaires no longer get payments from commodity programs. We tightened payment limits to half of what farmers currently are able to receive. We closed what is known as the managers' loophole that lets people get farm payments when they are not farming. Instead, we support a strong safety net based on crop insurance and risk.

If someone has a risk, if they have a loss, then it is critically important we stand with American agriculture. We have the safest and most affordable food supply in the world, and it is critically important that we have the risk management tools available for our Nation's farmers.

We heard over and over when Senator Roberts was in Michigan--and I am grateful he joined me. I was pleased to have joined him in Kansas. We heard the same issues in our hearings in DC and around the country that crop insurance was the most important tool for our producers.

Nobody wants to see a family farm--some passed down from generation to generation--go out of business because of a few days of bad weather or because of other changes in the markets beyond their control. I cannot think of a more high-risk venture, frankly, than agriculture.

This year in my State when it got very warm in February and March, the cherry blossoms, apple blossoms, peaches, and grapevines all thought it was spring and the blossoms came out. Then when the freeze and the snow came, we were literally wiped out of tart and sweet cherries, apples, peaches, and grapes. Everything across the board was devastated. I can't think of any other business that has to go through that kind of risk other than farmers.

So we put in place a strengthened program so more specialty crops and more fruit and vegetable growers can get access to crop insurance. We have new capacity to support expanded risk tools. We substituted that with a market-oriented, risk-based approach that supports farmers in the bad times; so they will not get a government check in the good times but in the bad times when we need to make sure our farmers can survive and thrive.

This bill does not set a government price. It focuses on what is happening in the marketplace. The farmers are choosing what to plant from the market. We make sure no farmer goes off the cliff when a price drops immediately, and that crop insurance is there for them as well. Independent economists have said this is a fair system that is equitable to all regions and all commodities.

We have a very diverse country. We know we have colleagues that still have concerns, and we are certainly working with them to fine-tune this bill, but we also know moving to a risk-based system treats all regions fairly. It is the kind of reform people across the country, including taxpayers, are asking us to do.

This bill is much more than just a bill related to production agriculture--as important as production agriculture is. I am very proud of what we have been able to do on conservation. We have gone through every program, streamlined them, and increased flexibility. We have done what families and farmers across the country are doing, analyzing and stretching every dollar.

Frankly, we have a conservation title that does more with less. We have taken 23 programs, consolidated them into 13, and put them into four different areas with a lot of flexibility. We are maintaining our conservation tools and strengthening key priorities. There are certain areas that did not have any funding when this farm bill ends on September 30. We have been able to combine that into a larger effort, and we are now able to continue and strengthen conservation. That is why we have heard from 643 conservation groups in all 50 States that support the approach we have taken in this bill. We continue the important work done in the farm bill around nutrition and helping families who are most in need.

I have heard from so many people in Michigan in the last few years, with the huge recession we have gone through, who never imagined in their lives they would need help putting food on the table. They paid taxes all their lives and never thought they would have to ask somebody to help them and their children get through the month but are now in that situation. I am committed to making sure every single dollar goes to people who need it.

We are cracking down on trafficking. We have had at least two situations in Michigan where lottery winners somehow maintained food assistance. Obviously, that is crazy, and so that will not happen anymore under this bill.

Students who live at home with their parents and have been able to go through the loopholes to get food help, it is not right. That is not where it is intended. We address that as well. We have tightened a number of areas on accountability. We know there are areas where we can make sure there is accountability, there is transparency and, in fact, families in need know they can help feed their children during these tough economic times.

We are also recognizing the diversity of agriculture in America by strengthening support for fruits and vegetables and other specialty crops. We are making sure we are getting those healthy foods into schools, supporting organic farmers, farmers' markets, and food hubs locally. By the way, that also creates jobs.

We are continuing our work on energy and helping farmers save money on their bills while getting America off of foreign oil. We are opening opportunities for new innovative companies involved in biomanufacturing. This is an exciting area for me as we look at how we make and grow things in this country and bring those two together. I think that is why we have a middle class in America--because we make and grow things.

Biomanufacturing is the process of taking raw materials from agricultural products, whether it is soybean oil, corn byproducts, wheat husk, biomass materials, and using them to create products and replace chemicals and petroleum in plastics, for example, with biodegradable bio-based products, which is very important for our future in so many ways. That is what the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act is all about.

As we go further in this debate, I will have much more to say about all of the specifics in the titles. But let me just end with this before turning to my friend to speak.

The current farm bill, the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act--the current farm bill expires this September 30, when farmers are getting ready for the harvest.

If Congress cannot come together in a bipartisan way, as we did in the Agriculture Committee and as we did in the fall with the agricultural leaders, and pass this bill before then, it will create tremendous uncertainty and job losses in communities all across America, and it will have a serious impact on our economic recovery. I hope our colleagues will work with us, will join with us to make sure that does not happen.

We have received broad support for this legislation from 125 farm groups, healthy food groups, and other stakeholders. I am very grateful to 45 of our colleagues who, on a bipartisan basis in a letter to leadership, urged that this bill be taken up. It is clear there is broad support in Congress and across the country for the farm bill. So I urge my colleagues to let us begin the debate on this important jobs bill that affects 16 million people across this country.

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