U.S. House Passes Farm Bill Despite Last Minute Tax Fight

WASHINGTON, DC, July 27, 2007 (ENS) - The 2007 Farm Bill passed today by the U.S. House of Representatives meets with the approval of the nation's two largest farmers' organizations. The bill, passed by a vote of 231-191, retains a safety net for farmers when prices fall; authorizes a permanent disaster program; and increases funding for conservation, nutrition, and renewable energy.

Organic grower Craig Murphy windrows wheat on his farm near Morris, Minnesota. (Photo by Bruce Fritz courtesy USDA)
The House farm bill is a good bill,"said Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, with a membership of 250,000 farm and ranch families. "Conservation spending is increased by $4.6 billion, nutrition program spending by $4 billion, renewable energy efforts by $2.5 billion and, for the first time ever, provides $1.6 billion for fruit and vegetable growers."

For the first time, the bill requires country of origin labeling for meats, fruits and vegetables. "After five years of repeated delays, Congress finally said it is time to implement mandatory country of origin labeling for meats, fruits and vegetables to allow our nation's consumers the right to know where there food comes from," Buis said.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman said, "For the first time in recent history, no additional funding is provided for commodity programs. At the same time, the bill meets the needs of more of America's farmers by providing $1.6 billion in new funding for specialty crop research, conservation, pest and disease programs, and nutrition.

"Overall, this bill directly benefits America's taxpayers because it is fiscally responsible, spending $20 billion less than the prior farm bill," said Stallman. "That is real reform."

The bill received unanimous, bipartisan support from the House Agriculture Committee July 20, but while the bill had broad support in the committee, much of today's contentious debate focused an eleventh hour tax measure introduced to fund nutrition programs.

House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota addresses members of the media alongside Ranking Member Bob Goodlatte of Virginia at a May 17, 2007, press conference to kick off the Farm Bill drafting process. (Photo courtesy House Agriculture Committee)
Republicans from farm states became angry after the measure increasing taxes by $4 billion on U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies was added to the bill at the last minute, in part to pay for nutrition for impoverished families.

"Not 24 hours before we were to consider this bill on the Floor, we were made aware of a tax increase provision that had been added to this language behind closed doors," fumed Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee. "Unfortunately all of the good things contained in this bill have been overshadowed by very partisan elements of what should be a bipartisan bill."

House Republican Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri blamed the Democrats for taxing foreign companies that create jobs in this country.

"The tax hike included in the newest version of the majority's Farm Bill would raise taxes on foreign companies operating inside the United States, potentially driving millions of American jobs out of the country. These companies employ more than 5.1 million of our citizens, with an average compensation per worker of $63,428 a year," said Blunt.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson blamed the the Bush administration and Republican Leadership for trying to stall the legislation.

"Mischaracterizing the offset that will expand nutrition benefits for working families is just the latest attempt to derail this Farm Bill, despite broad support for the bill from farm, conservation, nutrition, energy, specialty crop and renewable energy groups," Peterson said.

"Apparently, the Bush administration and some in the Republican leadership care more about defending the ability of foreign companies to exploit a loophole in the U.S. tax system than they do about supporting the hardworking families and farmers in this country. I hope that they will reconsider their opposition and join us in supporting this Farm Bill that represents a new direction for agriculture policy."

But Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said today the tax provision was "crafted under a cloak of secrecy."

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns spoke at the National Press Club Newsmaker Luncheon today. (Photo courtesy USDA)

"We don't pass farm bills that way," Johanns told a news conference. "But the most remarkable thing about this, the most remarkable thing about this is that we put farmers and ranchers in this position of supporting a tax increase on another industry to finance their program. Remarkable."

"And now we have pitted America's farmers and ranchers against the National Association of Manufacturers, the Organization of International Investment, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the United States Council for International Business, and I could go on and on," Johanns said. "We haven't broadened the support for farm policy; we have narrowed it."

Earlier this week, the Bush administration issued a veto threat against the bill based on the tax issue.

A statement of policy issued by the White House said the House bill "moves backward" and could compromise international trade negotiations.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat shot back, "The tax loophole objection raised by the White House is no more than a desperate attempt at obstructionism. We must not let this disingenuous attack derail this bipartisan farm bill."

"For the first time in 30 years, this bill increases the minimum food stamp benefit and indexes it to inflation, so rising food costs do not erode a families' purchasing power," Pelosi said. "The food stamp provisions in this bill will prevent benefit cuts for more than 13 million Americans over next five years."

"Members of Congress had to decide to either close a tax loophole enjoyed by foreign corporations avoiding paying American taxes or feed our nation's hungry children. To me that's a no-brainer," said Buis of the National Farmers Union.

Pelosi said the bill will ensure that Americans send their energy dollars to the Midwest and across America, instead of the Middle East, and create good paying jobs here at home.

"The 2007 farm bill encourages the production of biofuels, not only from corn, but from a variety of crops," said Pelosi. "It boosts our investment in renewable energy by 600 percent and provides loan guarantees for the development of refineries that process renewable fuels."

"Energy independence is a national security issue, it is an environmental issue, and it is an economic issue for our nation and America's families. Thanks to this farm bill, it will also be an economic solution for America's farmers. It will create a rural renaissance that will re-energize farm country and create jobs in small towns across America," Pelosi said.

"In the area of conservation, the bill improves access to, and funding for, initiatives that take environmentally sensitive lands out of production," said Pelosi. "It encourages environmentally friendly practices on working lands. And it will invest 30 percent more to preserve farm and ranchland, improve water quality, enhance soil conservation, air quality, and wildlife habitat on working lands."

While environmentalists acknowledged these advances, some said they will go nowhere because there is not enough funding in the bill to support them.

"As the bill currently stands, the Conservation Security Program will not be able to accept new enrollments for the life of this farm bill, cutting off support for many environmentally conscientious farmers and ranchers who are striving to achieve the highest levels of conservation stewardship on their land," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Clinton administration.

"The Grasslands Reserve Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program are also funded well below urgently needed levels," said Clark. "We are disappointed that the House opted against adopting several measures offered on the floor to increase conservation funding."

Clark is now looking to the Senate, which is expected to begin considering its version of the Farm Bill in September. "We urge the Senate to secure the funding increases necessary to provide the full suite of conservation programs to farmers and ranchers who wish to improve their stewardship practices and to protect and enhance wildlife habitat on their land."

Organic farmer Phil Foster, left, and horticulturist Eric Brennan inspect leaves of red chard on Foster's organic farm in San Juan Bautista, California. (Photo by Scott Bauer courtesy USDA)

Organic farmers too say more funding is needed to support their work, and they are appealing to the Senate to increase their share of the pie.

"The House version of the Farm Bill is a positive step in the right direction," said Steve Ela, a certified organic farmer and president of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. "However, we now must turn to the Senate and advocate that a fair share of funding resources be allocated to organic research and education initiatives. The investment in research, certification cost sharing and education is vital to assist U.S. farmers to develop the knowledge base to meet the demand for organics."

The National Organic Certification Cost Share Program helps defray the cost of organic certification for farmers up to 75 percent of the total cost, to a maximum of $750. The program was reauthorized with mandatory funding of $22 million for the life of the Farm Bill, an increase of $5 million from the 2002 Farm Bill, but less than the $25 million that Ela says organic farmers need.

A separate program, the Agricultural Management Assistance Program, provides $5 million in supplemental funding for organic certification cost-share in 17 states.

Some cattlemen too are disappointed in the bill as it now stands. The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, R-CALF USA, has been lobbying hard for country-of-origin labeling, COOL, that the group says is needed to distinguish American beef from beef in countries that have higher levels of mad cow disease.

"R-CALF is pleased with the outcome of COOL legislation, which will move us closer to implementation and which also lessens the possibility that USDA will again try to undermine the law," said R-CALF COOL Committee Chair Mike Schultz.

Country of origin labels will be placed on meat if this version of the Farm Bill is enacted. (Photo courtesy USDA)
R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard said the group was disappointed to learn that House rules prevented Representative Barbara Cubin, a Wyoming Republican, from introducing her amendment to ban cattle and beef imports from countries with ongoing problems with mad cow disease, known formally as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE.

"Cubin's amendment would minimize food safety risks from BSE-affected countries and strengthen U.S. import restrictions, which would boost confidence among U.S. export customers," Bullard said. "Our export customers have imposed some very stringent restrictions on U.S. beef exports, not because we have a continuing BSE problem, but rather because we continue to import the BSE problem into this country from Canada."

"R-CALF will immediately work to see if we can get this amendment included in the Senate version of the Farm Bill, and work to have it as a stand-alone piece of legislation in the U.S. House," Bullard said. "This is a very important issue to the U.S. cattle industry, so we're going to pursue it aggressively, as our members have directed us to."

Some other provisions of the 2007 Farm Bill as passed today by the U.S. House of Representatives:

The Chesapeake Bay Program for Nutrient Reduction and Sediment Control includes $150 million in new mandatory funding and directs the Secretary of Agriculture to develop a comprehensive plan for restoring, preserving, and protecting the Chesapeake Bay watershed starting with the Susquehanna, Shenandoah, Patuxent, and Potomac Rivers.

The program authorizes restoration enhancement and preservation cost-share projects that would help achieve the mutual goals of nutrient reduction and sediment control.

The $25 million Chesapeake Bay Comprehensive Conservation Planning Pilot Program undertakes comprehensive conservation planning to assist producers before they submit an application for conservation assistance.

The bill authorizes the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, EQIP, clarifying forest land as eligible for the program, and provides $8.6 billion over five years. EQIP offers financial and technical help to assist farmers install or implement structural and management practices on eligible agricultural land.

The bill reauthorizes the Healthy Forests Reserve Program and provides $17 million a year for five years. Participants agree to conserve and manage endangered species habitat and in exchange, they are protected from additional regulatory burdens.

The bill establishes a new program, the Emergency Forest Restoration Program, to assist private forest owners with restoration following disasters such as gypsy moth infestations, hurricanes and wildfires.

$100 million was authorized for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides food to states for distribution to needy families. Most of the food distribution is accomplished through food banks and soup kitchens.

The bill authorizes $995 million for the Farmland Protection Program, which provides matching funds to help purchase development rights to keep productive farm and ranchland in agricultural uses.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.