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Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013

Floor Speech

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

Mr. DURBIN. Madam President, I am reluctant to break up this conversation among my fellow Republican Senators because they seem to be at odds, but I do want to remind all of the Senators--and I think the Senator from Arizona has alluded to this--we were slapped around unmercifully for not passing a Senate budget resolution.

Mr. McCAIN. And deservedly so.

Mr. DURBIN. I expected that. I would say to the Senator from Arizona there were answers, and I thought good answers, but not good enough. We passed a budget resolution. The Senator was here. It passed by one vote. We stayed until early in the morning hours to get it done.

Senator Patty Murray did a masterful job in putting this together. Of course, our passing the resolution is only half of the story. The way this is supposed to work is the so-called regular order, if it differs between the Senate and the House, is we come together in a conference to work out the differences.

How long have we been trying--how many weeks have we been trying?

Mr. REID. Sixty-one days.

Mr. DURBIN. Sixty-one days we have been begging the Republicans--we have been begging the Republicans, not all of them, to give us an opportunity to go to conference and work out our differences, if we can.

That is the regular order. And each time we have asked, as Senator Kaine of Virginia did this morning, there has been a condition to it: No, you can't sit down to try to work out your differences unless you agree ahead of time to take certain things off the table. That is not reasonable. It is not reasonable if you are serious about the deficit, if you are serious about the debt of the United States.

I could dream up a half dozen things. All right, I won't allow us to go to conference if it in any way is going to touch Social Security benefits. All right? I think I would need a lot of support for that, and we wouldn't go to conference. But at the end of the day, if we are serious about the deficit, we are supposed to sit down and work out our differences, House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans. When Senator Kaine makes this unanimous consent request to go to a conference committee, he is asking for the regular order of business around here.

Mr. CRUZ. Will the Senator yield for a question?

Mr. McCAIN. May I ask my friend from Illinois, isn't that what the regular order is, that makes it perfectly applicable, if we instruct the conferees, which is what we are asking for in this unanimous consent agreement?

Mr. DURBIN. Yes. The Senate majority leader is on the floor, and he has said if there is to be a motion to instruct conferees on the debt ceiling, for example, then we can have a vote on the floor of the Senate. That is the regular order.

Mr. CRUZ. Will the Senator yield for a question?

Mr. DURBIN. But to condition the granting of the unanimous consent request to go to conference on the concern du jour of whichever Senator comes to the floor is unproductive.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Tennessee.

Mr. DURBIN. Madam President, I haven't yielded the floor as yet, and I think the Senator from Texas had a question for me.

Mr. CRUZ. I thank my friend from Illinois, and I would ask him, if the position he is championing is the regular order, then why is it the Democrats are asking unanimous consent to set aside the regular order to go to conference?

The only reason unanimous consent is needed is because you are endeavoring to circumvent the regular order, and by doing so opening the door for a procedural trick to raise the debt ceiling with 50 votes rather than 60.

Mr. DURBIN. I just checked with the majority leader to make sure my memory is correct. The Senator from Texas will learn that when we go to a conference committee, we are subjected to a possibility of a filibuster. Does that ring a note of familiarity on your side of the aisle? If we are going to face a filibuster and 60 votes, it is not going to happen.

What we are trying to do is to establish ahead of time we are going to a conference. So if we go through the so-called regular order to go to conference, we will reach the same impasse with the Republicans objecting and the Republicans potentially raising the issue of a filibuster. That is why we are trying for this unanimous consent, which I would think, from the Republican side, we would have bipartisan agreement that we move to a conference committee.

Mr. CRUZ. Would the Senator yield for another question?

Mr. DURBIN. I am sorry, I am mistaken, and, thankfully, have been corrected. It is not a filibuster. It would call for using the House resolution of 50 hours of debate and another vote-arama to go through the regular order of things. It is not a filibuster. I stand corrected on that.

But the net result of it is to drag out as long, if not longer, than the earlier debate on the Senate budget resolution. That is why the unanimous consent request has been made.

Mr. CRUZ. Will the Senator yield for an additional question?

Mr. DURBIN. I am happy to yield.

Mr. CRUZ. So if I understand correctly, we are agreed now this is not the regular order. The Senate is not following the regular order that would have been taking up the House budget resolution and voting on that. That is not what is being pursued here, which is why the majority is seeking unanimous consent to set aside the rules.

But let me ask the question, if I might----

Mr. DURBIN. I yielded for a question, and I will respond. Then you may ask another, if you wish.

It is the regular order of things to ask for unanimous consent, and it is the usual and customary way the Senate works so that we don't have to repeat all over again the debate on the budget resolution to take up the House version. So it is not unusual. It is the regular order.

Mr. CRUZ. I would suggest that unanimous consent is used to circumvent the regular order----

Mr. DURBIN. No.

Mr. CRUZ. And in particular the debt ceiling was not contained in the budget, it was not debated in the budget, it is not part of the budget, and the only question here--we could have gone to conference 60 days ago if the Democrats had simply agreed not to use reconciliation as a backdoor trick to raise the debt ceiling, which has happened three times in the past. So this is not a hypothetical risk. This is, I believe, the intention of the majority, and it is why we are objecting to raising the debt ceiling--to issuing an unlimited credit card--and digging the hole deeper without actually fixing the problem.

Mr. DURBIN. To respond to the Senator from Texas, we have been through this before. In the House of Representatives they threatened not to extend the debt ceiling of the United States and caused severe damage

to our economy. Business leaders, labor leaders, families across America asked: How could the Congress do something so irresponsible as to not extend the debt ceiling of the United States? The President said he is not going to get into a political bargain over the debt ceiling of the United States. He is right. This ought to be something both parties take very seriously, as to whether we would jeopardize the full faith and credit of the United States of America, whether we----

Mr. McCAIN. Will the Senator yield for a further question?

Mr. DURBIN. I will in one moment, as soon as I finish replying to the Senator from Texas.

So the notion this debt ceiling is something we can casually say whether it is approved and extended makes no difference--it makes a big difference. And whether it is included in this, in terms of the budget resolution, remains to be seen. But we could have a motion to instruct the conferees relative to the debt ceiling. I think that has already been discussed.

What I am saying is: Why in the world aren't we sitting at a table this day, Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate, trying to work out our differences? I think most American people would ask: Isn't that why we sent you to Washington? Yet we run into these objections to unanimous consent requests.

I yield to the Senator from Arizona for a question.

Mr. McCAIN. Isn't it a little bizarre, this whole exercise we are going through, when some of us are asking to go to conference with a body that is dominated by the Members of our own party? We don't have, apparently, enough confidence the majority of the conference appointed by the other side of the Capitol will be a majority of Republicans and not Democrats? Isn't that a little bizarre?

And really, what we are talking about here, I will be very honest with my colleague from Illinois, is a minority within a minority. Because the majority of my colleagues in the Senate on this side of the aisle, with motions to instruct the conferees, want to move forward and appoint these conferees and do what every American family has to do in America and that is to have a budget.

Mr. DURBIN. I will yield the floor, because others wish to speak, but I will say that at this point in time we have passed a Senate budget resolution. We were challenged by the Republicans to do it, and we did it. It wasn't easy. It was a close vote, but we did it. Now we want to move to the next logical step and sit down with the House, resolve our differences and move on so we can reduce the debt of this United States in a responsible and orderly way.

The objection on the other side of the aisle for 61 days should come to an end. I salute my friend from Arizona.

Mr. McCAIN. I would ask my friend again, basically what we are saying here on this side of the aisle is that we don't trust our colleagues on the other side of the Capitol who are, in the majority, Republicans. I guess that is the lesson that can be learned here.

But far more importantly than that--far more importantly than that--in a recent poll I saw, 16 percent of the American people approve of Congress. When I go home and have townhall meetings and I say: You know what, my friends, we don't even have a budget. We can't even agree, Republicans and Democrats--Republicans and Republicans in this case--to have a budget, the same as every American family does. Does that contribute to the approval and the respect the people of this country have for us? The answer is obviously no.

So I urge my colleagues again, let's put some confidence in, if not the conferees appointed here, the conferees who will be appointed on the other side of the Capitol who are from our party, who are fiscal conservatives just as we are, instead of this blocking by what I assure my colleagues--all three of them here--is a minority of the minority of Republicans in the Senate who do not want to move forward with a budget that we spent so many hours and so much effort in achieving. Do not block it from going forward.

Mr. DURBIN. Madam President, I salute the Senator from Arizona for his intuitive, wise analysis of this situation. I am sorry we still have an objection from the Republican side of the aisle to go to a conference committee with Republican House Members dominating that conference on their side. Apparently, they do not have confidence those House Members can speak for them, but I think it is important we do move to this conference committee as soon as possible.

I yield the floor.

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Mr. DURBIN. The tragedy that hit Oklahoma earlier this week--killing innocent people and children and destroying homes, businesses, and schools--just reminds us of how vulnerable we are to the forces of nature. It wasn't the first time the wind blew in Oklahoma. In fact, that same community had been victimized by a tornado years ago.

If we go back in history to the 1920s, the State of Oklahoma faced what we have now characterized as the Dust Bowl. I didn't know much about that, but I read about it. I kind of knew it destroyed lives, farms, and many people had to pick up and leave. They moved to California and other places.

I ran across an excellent book written by a man named Tim Egan. Tim is from Seattle, WA. I don't know him personally, but Senator Murray and Senator Cantwell know him. He writes for the New York Times and also writes excellent books. He wrote a book called ``The Worst Hard Time,'' which tells the story about the Dust Bowl.

What happened, as I understand it, was there was speculation on wheat during World War I. There was a scarcity of wheat because of the war in Europe. People in the United States saw the prices of wheat going high, so they started planting. They planted on fragile ground. As a consequence, they were churning up the ground to plant the wheat and were not mindful of some serious possibilities that the topsoil would blow away.

One thing led to another and it became a natural disaster--the Dust Bowl. As a consequence, many people left Oklahoma and many people saw their lives change forever. Tim Egan's book, ``The Worst Hard Time,'' tells about that in detail.

As a result of that experience in the 1920s, a couple of things happened. First, we started taking conservation seriously; for example, how to conserve the topsoil of our land so it doesn't blow away. Ultimately, this gift from God is what gives us such fertile soil.

Secondly, because we know a farmer is at the mercy of nature, we started to think of ways--under President Franklin Roosevelt--to make sure the farmers could get through hard times, such as a bad year, a bad crop, or low prices.

Starting in the 1930s with the New Deal, we started dreaming up farm programs, and there were many of them. I can recall when I was elected to Congress in 1982, I represented an agricultural district. At the time I knew little or nothing about farming. I was trying to learn as fast as I could as to the options and history of these programs. I learned some things, but I am certainly not an expert.

Over the years we have tried a lot of different ways of protecting farmers from the vagaries of nature and the market. Not that long ago--10 or 15 years--we had a situation where we were seeing these natural disasters--such as floods, droughts, and disease--that claimed crops. Many of the farmers affected by those came to Congress and asked for help. We were giving them disaster payments, we called them, to get them through another year.

Well, the decision was made about 10 years ago that it would be better for us to deal with that unpredictability of nature and move away from disaster payments to a program which is known as the Crop Insurance Program. It speaks for itself. It is a program where a farmer can buy insurance and with that insurance protect that farm from a bad productive season or low prices in the market.

More and more farmers started looking for that protection, but they were not that happy with crop insurance as it was too expensive. So what we did was make a calculation that if we subsidized the crop insurance premiums and if the Federal taxpayers kept them low, more farmers would buy it and we would pay less in natural disaster payments since the insurance program would take care of that exposure.

That is basically what we decided 10 years ago, and since then there has been a decrease in the cost of premiums and an increase in farmer participation and crop insurance, which is a good thing.

I might also say that during the same period of time we had some income protection for farmers in what was known as direct support payments. Unfortunately, those payments were guaranteed even in good times, and they became indefensible. We had some farmers with record profits on their farms and still getting a direct Federal support payment check.

We have the farm bill pending on the floor. Senator Stabenow of Michigan has done a remarkable job--again, for the second time--in writing a farm bill. She wrote a farm bill last year, which we sent to the House of Representatives after we passed it with a strong bipartisan vote, and they basically ignored it. They didn't want to call it so it could be considered on the floor of the House, but they could not come up with their own farm bill.

We are hoping for a better outcome this time. Once again, Senator Stabenow sat down with the agriculture committee in the Senate and produced this farm bill which is before us.

I am here today to describe an amendment which Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and I are offering. Senator Coburn, a very fiscally conservative Republican, and I have come to an agreement on an amendment which we are offering to the Senate--a Republican and a Democrat.

Here is what it comes down to: Our amendment would reduce the level of premium subsidy for crop insurance policies by 15 percentage points for farmers with an adjusted gross income of over $750,000.

Let me explain what is behind this. Crop insurance is not a real insurance program by private sector standards. In other words, the premiums being paid by the farmers do not create a reserve large enough to cover the amounts that are paid off or paid out for losses each year, so the Federal Government makes up the difference.

Currently, on average, when it comes to crop insurance policies, the Federal taxpayers--not the farmers--pay 62 percent of the premiums and the farmers pay 38 percent, so it is a heavily subsidized program. That is understandable because we want to keep the premium costs low so there is more participation, but it is also the reality. So we are dealing with a program that is important to our farmers and important to our Nation with a heavy Federal subsidy.

Last year farmers put in $4 billion in the purchase of crop insurance across America. The Federal taxpayers put in $7.1 billion in subsidies to the same Crop Insurance Program. So this is not a traditional insurance program, it is one that is heavily subsidized and heavily leveraged by the Federal Treasury.

I might also add the taxpayers are on the line for the cost of administering the program, which recently was $1.3 billion in a year, so $7.1 billion in premium subsidies and $1.3 billion in administrative expenses. We are basically saying the taxpayers, by a margin of 2 to 1, are putting more money in the crop insurance program than the farmers who are protected.

Going back to the Dust Bowl story, remember that one of the things we decided to do was to protect fragile lands from wind and water and the type of erosion that reduces their value. Over the years we had these conservation programs saying to farmers, if you have a wetland or a land that is particularly fragile or vulnerable, set it aside; don't plant on it. This bill Senator Stabenow brings to the floor makes this conservation practice a condition for buying crop insurance. I think that is a good thing, and I totally support that. And, from the viewpoint of the Federal taxpayers, I don't think it is too much to ask that the farmers participating in the crop insurance program also participate in conservation practices to protect farmland across this country. That is included.

Four percent of the most profitable farmers in America account for nearly 33 percent of all the premium support by the Federal Government. In other words, there are a lot of small farmers with crop insurance who don't have much exposure, don't pay much in premiums, but there are a lot of large operations that are quite different.

This is a GAO study that was put out in March of 2012. They analyzed the crop insurance program. Interesting reading. ``Savings would result from program changes and greater use of data mining.'' That was their conclusion, after investigating this program last year.

What they are talking about when they say ``data mining'' is taking a look at the farmers who are buying crop insurance. Who are these people? Well, they came up with some interesting examples, if I can find them. In the year 2010, according to the GAO, the average value of the premium subsidy received by participating farmers was $5,339. Thirty-seven participating farmers each received more than $500,000 in premium subsidies--that is subsidies from taxpayers--37. The participating farmer receiving the most in premium subsidies, a total of $1.8 million in Federal subsidies for one farmer--was a farming operation organized as a corporation that insured cotton, tomatoes, and wheat across two counties in one State.

There is another one here. Another of the 37 participating farmers was an individual who insured corn, forage, potatoes, soybeans, sugar beets, and wheat across 23 counties in 6 States for a total of $1.6 million in taxpayer subsidies for his crop insurance. In addition, the cost of the administrative expense subsidies the government spent on behalf of this farmer--one farmer--administrative expenses: $443,000. This is a farmer farming in 23 counties across 6 States.

The point I am trying to get to is this: When we think of farmers and the struggles they face, we shouldn't ignore the obvious. For the wealthiest 1 percent of the farmers in America, they are doing quite well. I think--and Senator Coburn agrees--the Federal subsidy in crop insurance to those farmers should be diminished some to save money for the program and to reduce the deficit. That is what our amendment is all about.

What we are suggesting, as I said at the outset, is that instead of 62 percent of the premium being paid by taxpayers for the richest farmers in America, it be 47 percent of the premium. That is still pretty generous, is it not, for someone who is getting $1.8 million in subsidies already and $400,000 plus in administrative expenses? We are helping that farmer in 23 counties over 6 States with over $2 million in Federal subsidies. I think he can afford to pay a little more. That is what this amendment says.

This farm bill is a good bill. It eliminates direct payments. I salute Senator Stabenow for doing that. Eliminating direct payments made regardless of need saves about $4.5 billion a year, $40.8 billion over 10 years. Hats off to Senator Stabenow. She is reducing the deficit with this farm bill.

I think crop insurance is a much better safety net than direct support payments and much more defensible. But Senators who are concerned about the growth of government and its costs ignore the fact that this heavily subsidized crop insurance program cost the Federal Government more than $14 billion last year. While this growth is mostly due to costs associated with drought, we have to find commonsense ways for savings in the program. That is why we have suggested that farmers with an adjusted gross income of over $750,000 pay 15 percent more when it comes to their premiums for crop insurance.

Let me add something which is not a very well-kept secret: Many of these very large farming operations divide up their farms and their income between husband and wife. So when we are saying $750,000 adjusted gross income, it is actually from a couple that is making over $1.5 million in adjusted gross income in many instances. Our amendment says if the adjusted gross income; that is, after deducting business expenses, health care costs, and other deductions, is at $750,000, premium support is reduced by 15 percentage points. The amendment is roughly estimated to impact the wealthiest 1 percent of farmers. Who is going to pay this? Who is going to pay the extra premium? Twenty thousand farmers across America will pay the extra premium. I just described a couple of them. Twenty thousand out of two million. Twenty thousand. Well, what is it worth to those 20,000 farmers to pay 15 percent more? It is worth $1 billion over ten years; $1 billion coming into our Treasury.

When I think of the ways we are cutting spending to reduce our deficit, which include taking 70,000 children out of Head Start as an example, how can we possibly justify, for the wealthiest multimillionaire farmers in America, not asking them to pay a little more when it comes to their crop insurance premium? How can we excuse them and say, No, no, no, these very rich farmers absolutely deserve the maximum when it comes to the Federal taxpayer subsidy? I don't think that is acceptable.

The amendment may sound familiar to some of my colleagues. It was adopted before by a vote of 66 to 33 in the Senate. Of the 33 who voted against the amendment, 29 voted for a nearly identical amendment that only varied in the scope of the study. This is a study associated with our amendment.

Some may come to the floor and say that following last year's drought, we shouldn't change crop insurance at all. Last year was the worst drought in over a decade. Eighty percent of agricultural production felt it and my State of Illinois certainly did. The USDA declared 2,245 counties in 39 States disaster areas. Crop insurance worked for those covered and has allowed those producers to plant again this year without missing a beat. Our change in the law would not change that circumstance at all.

I recognize the importance of crop insurance. It is far preferable to disaster payments. But for goodness sake, if we can't say to 1 percent of farmers--the wealthiest in this country--that they are going to take a slightly diminished Federal tax subsidy for their crop insurance, then we aren't very good as budget cutters. We say to a lot of people who have a lot less to work with in life, You are going to have to face up to the reality of the deficit. Can't we say it to 1 percent of the farmers, that they are going to have to face up to the same basic reality? That is what this amendment is all about.

I asked my staff to come up with a couple of examples of farmers and the premiums they pay for the Record. One example: An Illinois corn and soybean grower received $740,000 in premium subsidies to cover the crops he planted in 18 counties in Illinois. This is no small mom-and-pop farmer; this is a big operator. And while I love my Illinois farmers, I can't justify this kind of a subsidy of $740,000 to one farmer in my State. While his exact additional costs are impossible to calculate without knowing all the circumstances, even if he is caught by this amendment and purchased the same policy, instead of a $740,000 taxpayer subsidy he would have a $639,000 Federal taxpayer subsidy.

Another example: A South Dakota corn and soybean farmer received $1.4 million in premium subsidies to cover crops in eight different counties; $1.4 million Federal taxpayer subsidy for his crop insurance. This producer would only receive $1.19 million in premium support under this amendment. Would he stop participating in the program? Of course not. If he is that large a producer he needs this program and the subsidy is still very generous.

This is an issue which I know is a little complex, but when I listen to the speeches on the floor about the deficit--and we have heard plenty of them today and we will hear plenty of them tomorrow--I have to ask myself, Will Senators on both sides of the aisle stand with Senator Coburn and myself and say the wealthiest 1 percent of farmers in America should have their Federal subsidy for crop insurance reduced by 15 percent? Not unreasonable. They will still make a lot of money and the taxpayers will see $1 billion more coming into the Treasury.

I yield the floor.

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