Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013

Floor Speech

By:  Sheldon Whitehouse
Date: June 10, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Madam President, despite its name, farm bill policies touch the lives of all Americans, not just those who work in the agricultural sector. In addition to reauthorizing farm programs, this legislation deals with domestic and international food aid, conservation and the environment, trade, rural development, renewable energy, forestry, and financial markets, among other issues. This year's reauthorization presented an opportunity to enact significant reforms in these critical areas. While some progress was made, I believe the bill falls short of its potential and, ultimately, I cannot support it.

The farm bill took an important step toward reform by ending the longstanding practice of giving direct payments to farmers of certain commodity crops, regardless of whether a farmer experienced losses or even planted a crop. It also places caps on the amount of farm payments an individual can receive, expands crop insurance opportunities for specialty and organic crops, establishes conservation compliance as a requirement for receiving premium insurance subsidies, and invests in rural broadband.

In spite of these successes, however, the farm bill does not do enough for Rhode Island families.

Of greatest concern to me, it includes a $4.5 billion cut over 10 years to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP also known as food stamps. These cuts could lead to a reduction in food stamp benefits for an estimated 500,000 households across the country, including possibly 20,000 households in Rhode Island. SNAP is our Nation's most important anti-hunger program. In this challenging economic climate, which has affected low-income individuals more harshly than anyone, and from which Rhode Island is recovering very slowly, it is wrong to cut critical food-assistance funding.

I am also discouraged that this legislation provides no funds for fisheries
disasters, including those declared in 2012. Like our farmers, fishermen feed this nation. Americans enjoyed an average of 15 pounds of fish and shellfish per person in 2011, making us second in total seafood consumption in the world. Accordingly, fishing is also a major economic cornerstone of our coastal communities. In 2011, fisheries supported over 1.2 million jobs in the United States.

Despite adhering to strict catch limits, many fishermen and historic fishing communities are suffering dramatic declines in stocks. In 2012, Commerce Secretary Bryson and Acting Secretary Blank issued fisheries disaster declarations ranging from Alaska to Samoa, and from Mississippi up to my home State of Rhode Island. Despite being included in the Senate version, emergency funding for many of these fisheries was left out of final version of the Sandy disaster relief bill ultimately signed into law.

Farm bill programs provide billions of dollars in subsidies and technical assistance to farmers every year. In comparison, fishermen have little access to similar kinds of federal subsidies. Several amendments have been filed that attempt to correct this inequity, including the creation of a pilot program for Farm Service Agency operating loans and crop insurance for shellfish growers. We are a long way, however, from adequately supporting and protecting the role of fisheries in our food supply chain. Fishermen remain second-class citizens when it comes to federal support.

Finally, American agriculture springs from the richness of our land and natural resources, and the farm bill has long supported programs to conserve and protect those resources. As the harmful effects of climate change become more prevalent, our agricultural policy should reflect the threat posed to farming and food production by these changes. In this farm bill, ``climate change'' and ``extreme weather'' are hardly even mentioned. Congress can start by opening the Regional Conservation Partnership Program to climate change adaptation and mitigation projects.

The farm bill is important and wide-ranging legislation. Unfortunately, the bill before the Senate leaves out essential protections for low-income Americans, hard-hit fisheries, and precious natural resources.

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