The farm bill is the most important piece of legislation affecting our nation's farmers. It sets policy and covers a wide range of programs, including price support programs, conservation programs and nutrition assistance. While the 2002 farm bill expired in September 2007, it was extended temporarily while the 2008 farm bill was negotiated.
In Wisconsin, the importance of agriculture to our economy cannot be overstated. There have been many changes in the 2008 farm bill that will affect our agriculture sector. Several specific programs important to Wisconsin's dairy program were changed - the milk income loss contract program (MILC); the dairy price support program (DPSP); and the federal milk marketing order program.
Additionally, the federal government's largest land retirement program, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) also saw changes. The CRP provides payments to farmers to take highly erodible or environmentally sensitive cropland out of production for ten years or more. It was first enacted by Congress in 1985 to help control soil erosion, stabilize land prices and control excessive agricultural production. Since then, program purposes have been expanded to include environmental goals.
On May 14, 2008, the House passed the conference agreement on the 2008 farm bill by a vote of 318-106. The next day, the Senate passed the same bill by a vote of 81-15. On May 21, President Bush vetoed the legislation. Both the House and the Senate voted to override the veto, and the conference bill became law on May 22, 2008. However, an enrolling error resulted in one title of the bill (Title III, Trade) being omitted from the version that was sent to the White House, and the newly enacted law contains 14 of 15 farm bill titles. To rectify the error, the House and Senate again passed the 2008 farm bill.
As said earlier, the farm bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation that the Congress considers. It is extremely broad, covering energy, trade and disaster assistance programs. Unfortunately, I had several concerns about this bill, and I could not support the bill that came before me.
I believe a farm bill should be designed to assist family farmers in times of need, rather than direct most of the subsidies to very large, corporate farming operation. We need to pass a farm bill that also gives the U.S. the ability to open up new export markets for our products. Unfortunately, this bill does the opposite.
Instead, when it originally came before the House floor I supported the bipartisan Kind-Flake Fairness in Farm and Food Policy Amendment. This amendment, which was a version of the Kind-Flake FARM-21 legislation, adopted USDA's proposals to make the marketing loan program more efficient and market oriented and included no tax increases. This amendment would have also shifted savings into deficit reduction and provided more funding for conservation and nutrition programs. Finally, the amendment would have addressed trade distorting subsidies. Unfortunately, this reform-minded provision failed by a vote of 117-309 on July 26, 2007. Other key provisions of the amendment would have:
* Replaced Depression-era price guarantees with a modern revenue-based safety net that better protects family farmers from declines in crop prices and crop yields compared to the current price-based payments.
* Denied subsidies to large commercial farmers with average annual adjusted gross income greater than $250,000 and limited annual subsidies to $250,000 per entity.
* Gradually reduced direct payments for commodities, which were intended as "transitional" temporary payments under the 1996 Farm Bill, but have since been extended and increased. Limited-resource farmers would have been exempted from these changes.
* Created optional Risk Management Accounts that would be available to every farmer and rancher and would work together with crop and revenue insurance already held by about 80 percent of producers. These "rainy day" accounts would have helped farmers set aside savings during profitable years to supplement their income during downturns.
* Reformed crop insurance and reduced excessive payments to crop insurance companies that administer the program.
* Reduced the deficit by $1.9 billion over five years and by roughly $14 billion over 10 years - without resorting to budget gimmicks or tax hikes.
* Dedicated part of the savings generated by reforms to conservation and nutrition programs.
The agriculture industry has taken a leadership role in the development of renewable and alternative energy sources. The products produced by American farms have the potential to reduce our dependence on foreign sources of oil. Equally important, these fuels have many potential benefits for our environment. Because of this, I am happy to see the automotive industry working to develop alternative fuels vehicles, which can run on a variety of biofuels.
To that end, I was pleased to support H.R. 547, the Advanced Fuels Infrastructure Research and Development Act. This bill instructs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to implement a program of research and development of materials to be added to biofuels to make them more compatible with existing infrastructure used to store and deliver petroleum-based fuels to the point of final sale. This bipartisan legislation addresses this need, and I was happy to vote for this and see it pass the House on February 8, 2007, by a vote of 400-3. I am hopeful that the Senate will act quickly in passing this important legislation.
Health Savings Accounts.
The high cost of health insurance is one of the leading problems facing individuals and small business owners, including farmers. One important step towards giving people more opportunities to manage their health care needs was the creation of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). HSAs allow small business owners and individuals to purchase health coverage to fit their individual needs. HSAs allow Americans to set pre-tax dollars aside at their own discretion in order to save and pay for their health care costs. An HSA participant carries a high deductible insurance plan that is used primarily for serious illnesses, while routine medical costs, even Medicare costs, are paid for out of the individual's HSA. Individuals, employers, or even family members can contribute money to an HSA, and these accounts are portable from job to job. HSA-eligible plans can be carried over each year, and are comprehensive, including benefits such as prescription drug coverage, hospitalization, and doctor benefits.
Reliance on HSAs has grown dramatically since they became a viable option for health coverage. In November 2004, about 438,000 individuals were covered by HSA-type insurance plans as compared to the roughly 3.2 million people who are now receiving health insurance through these plans. More impressive, however, have been the number of new HSA enrollees who were previously uninsured. In fact, forty-one percent of eHealthInsurance's HSA plan purchasers in 2005 reported being uninsured prior to buying their HSA plan.
Given these encouraging results, I introduced legislation into the House in September 2006 that provided individuals and business with the flexibility they needed to fully realize the potential of their HSAs. I was pleased when this bill was included in the recently passed Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006 which the President signed into law on December 20, 2006.
Fiscal Year 2008 (FY2008) Consolidated Appropriations Act
On December 17, 2007, the House passed H.R. 2764, the FY2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act, which included the FY2008 Agricultural Appropriations Act by a vote of 241-178. On December 26, 2007, the President signed this bill into law. This legislation provides $18.1 billion in total discretionary resources for Agriculture, Rural Development and FDA appropriations, which is $265 million over the President's budget request. The following provisions are included:
* $16.3 billion for the Department of Agriculture, an increase of $163 million over FY2007;
* $139.7 million for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, an increase of 30% over FY2007;
* $847 million for bio-energy and renewable energy research and development;
* $936.8 million for conservation programs; and
* Provides $20.0 million of emergency-designated funding for Farm Service Agency, Salaries and Expenses
As with the Farm Bill, I supported many provisions in H.R. 2764. However, I could not vote for this bill because it violated the FY08 budget resolution and abused the use of the "emergency spending" designation. Expenses such as salaries are not "emergencies' and should be planned for in advance. Additionally, over 9000 earmarks were included in the Omnibus, providing funding for programs such as fruit fly research in Montpelier, France.