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Public Statements

Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, I wish to thank our majority leader, Republican leader, and all the Members for allowing us in the Senate to move forward today on this very important bill. I want to thank my ranking member Senator Thad Cochran for his friendship and his leadership. I want to thank all of the members of the committee for working together to write this important legislation. Also, I want to thank our staffs on both sides of the aisle. We have excellent staffs who have worked together, and I know we will continue to work together as we move this legislation through.

Our bill, the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013, is critical to the 16 million Americans whose jobs rely on a strong agricultural economy. Agriculture has been one of the bright spots as our economy is getting back on track. In fact, it is one of the few areas where we actually have a trade surplus, where we are exporting more than we are importing. This means jobs for us in America.

The farm bill is a jobs bill. It is a jobs bill, a trade bill, a reform bill, a conservation bill, and it is a kitchen table bill. Thanks to the farm bill, families all across America will sit down around a table tonight and enjoy the bounty of the world's safest, most abundant, and most affordable food supply. Those who need temporary help to feed their families during an economic crisis will get help as well. This is a bill that reflects our best values as Americans.

It is easy to take agriculture for granted. It is easy for many of us to forget the food we eat doesn't come from the supermarket, as some folks may think. The food we eat comes from the skill and the efforts of the men and women who work hard from sunrise to sunset, day in and day out, to put food on our tables. Too often I believe we take them for granted as well. Most of us don't have to worry about how many days it has been since the last rainfall or whether it is going to freeze in May after the fruit trees are blooming. Most of us don't have to worry about decisions and weather conditions around the world and how they affect our livelihood here at home.

That is why we have what we call the farm bill. We have a farm bill because farmers are in the riskiest business in the world. We saw that last year as our country was in the grip of the worst drought in generations. We saw this as ranchers had to cull their herds because they couldn't get enough food or water for their cattle. We saw all across the country that farmers lost their crops in late spring freezes that wiped out cherry and apple crops in Michigan and other parts of the country. That is why the top goal of the agriculture reform bill is risk management. We are reforming farm programs, ending direct payments and other subsidies that have no relationship to risk and instead giving farmers market-based risk management tools. That is the hallmark of this farm bill.

We want to make sure a farm that has been passed on for generations doesn't face bankruptcy because of a drought or other events outside the farmer's control. We also want to make sure that when there is a drought we are conserving our precious soil and water resources. When it comes to conservation, the farm bill is risk management for the whole country. Conservation programs in the farm bill make sure our soil doesn't blow away and our waters aren't polluted by runoff.

In many parts of the country last year we had a drought that was worse than the Dust Bowl, but we didn't have a dust bowl. We didn't have out-of-control erosion, and that is because the farm bill did what it was supposed to do in conservation. Soil stayed on the ground. It is easy to take that for granted as well.

The farm bill is our country's largest investment in land and water conservation on private lands, and the farm bill gives farmers tools to strengthen wildlife habitat. I had the opportunity this weekend, with my gracious host, the Senator from Mississippi, to visit a wildlife preserve program and wetlands preserve program, and Senator Cochran is responsible for those parts of the farm bill. We had an opportunity to go out on a beautiful piece of flat land in the Mississippi delta and see where ducks were coming back, quail were coming back, and habitat was beginning to flourish because of efforts to support these important resources for the future. The farmer involved in the property said he felt he was in partnership with the USDA and making a commitment for his children and future generations through conservation. This is a real source of pride for us as we look at this 5-year farm bill.

I am pleased the bill before us includes a new historic agreement between conservation groups and commodity groups around conservation and crop insurance. These folks from very different perspectives sat down together, listened to one another, and worked out an agreement that will preserve land and water resources for generations to come.

The farm bill helps farmers improve 1.9 million acres of land for wildlife habitat. Healthy wildlife habitat and clean fishable waters are not only good for our environment but they also support hunting, fishing, and all the other great outdoor recreation which benefits our economy and creates jobs. We just plain have fun doing it in Michigan. In fact, outdoor recreation supports over 6 million jobs alone. That is a big deal.

We also continue our support for specialty crops, fruits, vegetables, and those crops that make up about half of the cash receipts of our country. Organic agriculture is a growing part of agriculture. We expand farmers markets in local food hubs to encourage schools and businesses to support their local farmers by purchasing locally grown food and creating more local jobs. We expand the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables that are so essential in schools and community food programs.

We also strengthen rural development financing for small businesses. Once you get outside of the cities in Michigan and all across our country, every single community in Michigan, outside of our big cities, gets support for jobs through something we call rural development, financing for small businesses, for water and sewer projects, road projects, housing efforts for families, a whole wide variety of things we do through this economic arm in the USDA called rural development.

We also expand the energy title to encourage support for new jobs in biobased manufacturing, which is an exciting new effort. In addition to biofuels, we now can use agricultural products and byproducts to replace petroleum and other chemicals in manufacturing. There is a huge new opportunity for jobs, as well as supporting our environment by doing these things. There is no doubt that the farm bill is a jobs bill.

This bill also continues to focus on the issue that has taken so much of our time this year, last year, and the year before, and that is cutting the deficit and getting our Nation's fiscal house back in order. We get rid of unnecessary subsidies such as the Direct Payment Program that sends a check to folks regardless of whether they are even farming a particular crop anymore, streamlining programs to cut redtape, and cracking down on fraud and abuse. In fact, we eliminate over 100 different programs or authorizations that either were duplicating something else or didn't make sense to do anymore. I think that is the way we ought to be cutting spending and creating savings.

Altogether, including the cuts that took effect already this year, we are able to cut spending by about $24 billion. That is more than double the cuts proposed by the Simpson-Bowles Commission and last year's Gang of Six that worked on deficit reduction.

And I want to underscore that this is four times--four times--more than is required by the arbitrary across-the-board sequestration cuts. So we in agriculture take a back seat to no one in our commitment to doing our part in making tough decisions and setting priorities to reduce the deficit.

This bill represents the most significant reform of American agriculture in decades, in my judgment. We are putting caps on payments to farmers and closing loopholes that allowed people who were not actually farming to receive payments. We are strengthening crop insurance, which we heard from farmers was the No. 1 risk management tool for them. It is important we strengthen it and protect it as we move through this process.

The agriculture reform bill includes disaster assistance for our ranchers and farmers as well who cannot receive crop insurance--livestock owners and others in areas that cannot receive crop insurance.

We made sure our food assistance programs are accountable, that there is integrity in our programs, so we continue to build on the integrity that is this legislation through.

already there by cracking down on abuses and misuse. We made sure our changes would not remove one single needy family. It is not about hurting folks, it is about making sure there is not abuse, and that is what we address.

Let me say when we look at crop insurance, it is there for disasters for our farmers, and it goes up when there are a lot of disasters. That is when there is cost. Then it goes down when things are going better, and it is the same for food assistance for families. Costs go up during bad times, as we have seen over the last number of years, but now CBO tells us those costs are going down. Why? Because the economy is getting better and people are able to go back to work. That is how it is supposed to work, and that is how it is working.

Last year we in the Senate passed a farm bill with strong bipartisan support. We didn't take the 16 million Americans who work in agriculture for granted, we didn't take our land and water resources for granted, and we stood for families all across the country who had fallen on hard times.

Unfortunately, at that time the House of Representatives did not follow our lead. They allowed the farm bill to expire at the end of last year, which is why we are here again working through this process.

I appreciate the way we have gotten to this point in a bipartisan way. We have worked very hard to make sure every part of agriculture is addressed in terms of their needs and the risk management tools in this bill.

I thank my colleague from Mississippi Senator Cochran, who is the ranking member of our committee. He and his staff have worked diligently and in a bipartisan way, and that has allowed us to get to this point. So I thank him for that.

I am looking forward to working with colleagues to pass this bill as soon as possible, and we look forward to working with colleagues on amendments throughout this week.

I see my distinguished colleague, our ranking member, is here, and I will turn to him in just a moment. I do want to place one amendment in order at this point, and then we can proceed with our discussions. This is an amendment we have cleared on both sides on behalf of Senator Cantwell.

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Ms. STABENOW. Mr. President, I would like to take a moment this afternoon to talk about the importance of crop insurance as a risk management tool. I think we will probably have a lot of discussion on the floor about crop insurance, but, as I said, as a matter of policy, we are moving away from direct subsidies. We certainly have not subsidized tobacco growers for a long time, and I would not support doing that.

In general, we are moving away from that into an insurance model where the cost is shared between the Federal Government and growers. We want as many growers as possible to purchase crop insurance rather than have a disaster and then want us to pass a disaster assistance bill. I might add that we didn't have to do that this last time around despite the worst drought in 50, 60, 70 years because the crop insurance worked this last year. Crop insurance covered the losses. It is a very important public-private sector process and partnership.

One of my concerns about carving it up, having limits or removing one crop over another is that we have been moving away from a general policy of insurance. Going down the road, I think that would have a lot of implications and farmers in general would have great concern about that.

I have a tremendous amount of sympathy and, in fact, agreement with the distinguished Senator from Arizona. I sympathize with what my colleague was saying about tobacco as far as the harm to health and so on. When we look overall at crop insurance, the good news is that less than 1 percent of that whole program--I think substantially less than 1 percent--covers tobacco, so that is a good thing.

The larger question for farmers and all of us across the country is, Are we going to make a commitment broadly to the No. 1 risk management tool for them? Are we going to make sure that as we say we are not going to do subsidies anymore, we listen to what they are saying about having a crop insurance system?

There are parallels between that and flood insurance. So as people are proposing various limits on crop insurance, I think it is important to ask would we put that on other types of insurance, such as flood insurance risks or other things. Insurance deals with risks, and it is more about encouraging farmers to have a stake in the game and to be able to cover part of that risk with their own dollars rather than other types of policies we have debated about subsidies.

As we go forward, there will be a lot of different discussions about crop insurance, and I would ask colleagues to join with us in resisting efforts to eliminate or limit what is a public-private insurance system that is, frankly, working very well.

We are so proud that all of the farm organizations and commodity groups--just about all of them--come together to work with the conservation groups and environmentalists. They say that together they are going to both support an insurance model--a risk management model broadly as a matter of policy for agriculture--and they are also going to support linking that to conservation packages. So as a farmer receives that partnership--the piece we kick in--with that brings a commitment for conservation practices for our land, our soil, our water, and so on.

This is very important. This was not the case in the last farm bill or the farm bill before. We have not seen that kind of link, and now they have come together and said they support crop insurance broadly as an insurance model without limits that have been proposed by various people. In return for that, whether it is a very large farm or a small farm, the broad public benefit of having conservation compliance outweighs much of what we are hearing about in terms of the limits being proposed. In terms of the public good, we should have crop insurance that gives this alliance of crop insurance and conservation compliance.

This is a historic agreement, and I stand by that agreement with all of the Members. I believe that whether we are talking about large farmers or small farmers, this is a very important policy, and we need to have conservation compliance involved across the board in our efforts as we expand crop insurance.

We will have a lot of discussion and a lot of debate on this issue. I think it is very tempting to look at one particular crop--certainly a crop that has a lot of health risks related to it and that we have a lot of concerns about in other venues--and say let's just eliminate one crop.

The challenge with that, of course, is as a policy for insurance, there will be deep opposition and concern coming from agriculture--from farmers, large and small, across the country--about starting down that road no matter how noble the cause in terms of the concern about the risks of that particular crop. So we look forward to more discussion, but I think it is very important to put a broad lens on this. We have moved away from subsidies that come regardless of good times or bad, whether they are needed or not, and have moved to a system where we are asking farmers to put some skin in the game. We are saying: You have to get crop insurance; you have to be a part of paying for it, and you don't get any help unless there is a disaster; there is no payout unless there is a disaster. As we move to that broad cornerstone, I hope we can keep that in place and not see efforts that will weaken it around the edges.

Mr. President, I suggest the absence of a quorum.

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