By Senator Debbie Stabenow
Last year, in the middle of a hard-fought election, the Senate Agriculture Committee came together in a bipartisan way to craft a new kind of farm bill -- one with major reforms and tens of billions of dollars in spending cuts, a bill that media outlets called a "landmark shift" and "one of the biggest policy changes in generations." Even more important, our work reflected our commitment to the 16 million Americans whose livelihoods depend on agriculture.
However, even though last year's farm bill passed the Senate with overwhelming support from both sides of the aisle, House leadership prevented the bill from getting a vote, and the bill died.
There can be no more kicking the can down the road. We must pass a farm bill this year to provide certainty to the 16 million Americans whose jobs rely on agriculture. We must cut unnecessary spending. And we must ensure that consumers will continue to have a safe, healthy and affordable food supply.
Last year we set a goal of cutting agriculture spending by $23 billion. This savings target is more than twice what was recommended by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission. Passing this year's farm bill will yield over $24 billion in total agriculture savings.
We finally eliminate direct payment subsidies, which pay farmers even in good times when they're already doing well. Instead, we transition toward responsible risk management that provides support only when there are weather disasters or adverse market conditions beyond a farmer's control. This helps prevent family farms and other businesses from going under and protects consumers from wild swings in food prices.
The legislation also tightens payment limits in risk management programs to half of what farmers can receive under current subsidy programs, and closes the managers loophole, to ensure that so-called "farm managers" who aren't actually farming don't receive government payments.
The bill also saves money by tightening rules to prevent fraud and misuse in nutrition programs. It stops lottery winners from continuing to receive assistance, cracks down on retailers engaged in benefit trafficking and prevents states from allowing some individuals to claim expenses they do not have in order to get additional benefits above what their expenses allow. By ending program misuse we can save money without cutting standard benefits or hurting parents who need temporary help feeding their children during a financial crisis.
Tightening and streamlining programs not only saves money, it gives us the flexibility to bolster key priorities. We were able to consolidate 23 conservation programs with duplicative purposes into 13 programs while strengthening investments in top priorities in a way that has earned praise from conservation advocates across the country.
And conservationists and farming organizations reached a landmark agreement making conservation compliance required for crop insurance. This will keep crop insurance strong while protecting the natural resources on which farmers rely.
And, of course, the farm bill is a jobs bill. Agriculture is a major bright spot in our economy and the only area in which we have a trade surplus. The farm bill invests in initiatives that boost exports, help family farmers sell more goods locally and spur innovations in new bio-manufacturing and bio-energy industries.
It's time for reform. It's time for bipartisanship to win out over gridlock. It's time to create jobs. It's time for Congress to finish the farm bill.
Stabenow is chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.