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Obama signs and lauds bipartisan farm bill that cuts food stamps program funding

After Congress was unable to come to an agreement in 2013, President Barack Obama was able to finally sign a new 5-year farm bill, the Agricultural Act of 2014 on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014 in East Lansing, Michigan at Michigan State University. The farm bill funds both agricultural programs and nutritional ones primarily the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) providing food stamps to the nation's poor. The bill first expired at the end of 2012 then extended for nine-months ending in Sept. 30, 2013, but was then extended for another year under the terms of the 2008 bill, when Congress could not reach a deal because Republican opposition to include the food stamps program into the farm bill, a desire to cut the bill's spending. After over two years of negotiations and the inability to reach a bipartisan agreement, Congress took less than a week to introduce and then pass this version of the farm bill, before it reached President Obama's desk to sign. President Obama called it a multi-tasking bill at its signing, stating; "It's like a Swiss Army knife. It's like a Mike Trout, for those of you who know baseball."

President Barack Obama signs the Farm Bill into law in East Lansing, Michigan at the Michigan State University, Feb. 7, 2014
Jeff Kowalsky / European Pressphoto Agency

Surrounded by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-MI and Democratic lawmakers, President Obama signed the bill into law in a horse barn at Michigan State University's Mary Anne McPhail Equine Performance Center. The White House originally invited 50 lawmakers, but none of the Republicans decided to join the President for the bill signing. President Obama and Secretary Vilsack toured a pilot plant at the Michigan Biotechnology Institute before the President delivered his remarks and the bill signing.

Before signing the bill the President spoke to "an audience of 500" about both the farm bill and the economy. The first half of his remarks focused on the economy, Obama discussed the January jobs report that was released Friday morning where there was a gain of 113,000 new jobs, but even more newsworthy the unemployment rate fell to 6.6 percent the lowest rate since 2008. The President also spoke about his economic opportunity program, repeating most of the phrases he been using since his State of the Union Address outlining both the economic initiatives and his "go-it-alone strategy" that passes legislation through executive orders and memorandums bypassing Congress.

President Obama spent the second half of his remarks lauding the passage of the farm bill and outlining elements of the new bill. The President expressed some reservations; "It doesn't include everything that I'd like to see. And I know leaders on both sides of the aisle feel the same way. But it's a good sign that Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to come through with this bill, break the cycle of short-sighted, crisis-driven partisan decision-making, and actually get this stuff done."

President Obama highlighted the contents of the twofold bill, stating; "So that's the first thing this farm bill does -- it helps rural communities grow; it gives farmers some certainty; it puts in place important reforms." For farmers it includes things like "crop insurance"… "helps rural communities by investing"… "businesses working to develop cutting-edge biofuels"… "boosts conservation efforts"…. And the President pointed out; "It supports local food by investing in things like farmers markets and organic agriculture -- which is making my wife very happy. And when Michelle is happy, I don't know about everybody being happy, but I know I'm happy." Additionally the bill "reforms agricultural programs, and "helps to clamp down on loopholes."

The second part of the bill that Obama highlighted was SNAP, the food stamp program, describing; "The second thing this farm bill does -- that is huge -- is help make sure America's children don't go hungry." Continuing, Obama explained; "That's the idea behind what's known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. A large majority of SNAP recipients are children, or the elderly, or Americans with disabilities. A lot of others are hardworking Americans who need just a little help feeding their families while they look for a job or they're trying to find a better one." Obama summed up the bill by stating; "So investing in the communities that grow our food, helping hardworking Americans put that food on the table -- that's what this farm bill does, all while reducing our deficits through smart reforms."

As part of the string of executive order created economic legislation, Obama also announced an initiative to help rural businesses; "I'm directing my administration to launch a new "Made in Rural America" initiative to help more rural businesses expand and hire and sell more products stamped "Made in the USA" to the rest of the world -- because we've got great products here that need to be sold and we can do even more to sell around the world."

Obama concluded by urging Congress to continue this bipartisanship, working together; "And that's the way you should expect Washington to work. That's the way Washington should continue to work. Because we've got more work to do. We've got more work to do to potentially make sure that unemployment insurance is put in place for a lot of folks out there who need it. We've got more work to do to pass a minimum wage. We've got more work to do to do immigration reform." Additionally, the President stated; "So let's keep the momentum going here. And in the weeks ahead, while Congress is deciding what's next, I'm going to keep doing everything I can to strengthen the middle class, build ladders of opportunity in the middle class. And I sure hope Congress will join me because I know that's what you're looking for out of your elected officials at every level."

Secretary Vilsack spoke to reporters at the signing about the new bill and the agricultural boom; "The last five years have been the best five years in agriculture in the history of the country. Obviously we want to continue that momentum, and that required the passage of a farm bill."

The bill is big, the 1000-page legislation clocks in at just under a trillion dollar price tag for the five-year bill, an exact cost of $956 billion. The bill was crafted by the Democratic and Republican leadership in the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. The bill was a true compromise the Democratic controlled Senate wanted to only cut $4.5 billion from the farm bill, while the Republican controlled Congress wanted much steeper cuts at around $40 billion. According to Congress the bill only cut $23 billion, while a Congressional Budget Office report put the number lower at only $16.6 billion.

The bill cuts funds and programs and tightens eligibility requirements. In total $8 billion "over 10 years" is cut from the food stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or one percent of its budget, a total loss of $90 million in 2014, and another $800 million in 2015. Over 47.5 million Americans benefit each year from SNAP, which also compromises 75 percent of the farm bill's cost a total of $756 billion, the cuts will average to $2 for each of 850,000 that will affected. The bill also raises the minimum required in heating assistance from one dollar to $20 to trigger SNAP qualification. Still there are some significant spending raises in the SNAP program, $205 million for food banks, $200 million for state training programs, and in an effort to promote healthy nutrition, families will be able to "double their food stamp benefits at farmers markets." Both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats were not pleased with the amount of cuts for polar opposite reasons.

As for the agricultural elements of the bill, which affects "16 million" agricultural jobs, there was a total of $19 million in cuts including; the "direct-payment subsidy" given to farmers regardless of need, which cost a total of $5 billion. An addition $6 billion was cut by combining and reducing conservation programs from 23 down to 13. As for new agricultural spending an additional $10 billion was allotted a myriad of programs including disaster provisions, a raise in funding for crop insurance programs by $5.7 billion, risk management and according to ABC News for "research, promoting exports, support for specialty crops, bio-manufacturing, bio-energy, horticulture and rural development." A contentious element of the bill with the United States' northern neighbors Canada remained as part of the bill; "country of origin labeling" (COOL) for meat.

Considering the intense partisanship in Congress, especially during an election, the farm bill received solid bipartisan support, which prompted the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee Rep. Frank Lucas, R-OK to state; "In the environment that we've worked together in, this farm bill might not be quite defined by most people as a miracle but it's amazingly close. It makes a commitment to our fellow citizens who are in tough times, but it will also assure that the food will be there." Sen. Roy Blunt, R.-Mo. also agreed it was the best possible bill; "For two long years, our nation's farm families and rural communities have waited for a Farm Bill. While this may not be the best possible bill - it's the best bill possible right now. Programs in this bill touch the lives of every American, in every community, in every state."

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow praised the new legislation, saying; "This is not your father's Farm Bill. It's a new direction for American agriculture policy." Sen. Stabenow also explained the bill's improvements; "This bill eliminates unnecessary subsidies, creates a more effective farm safety-net and strengthens our commitment to conservation of land and water." Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-OH also praised the bill; "All Americans stand to benefit in some way from this farm bill. This is an improvement over current law, and there are no earmarks."

Congress passed the farm bill quickly the House of Representatives passed the bill with a vote of 251-166 on Wednesday, Jan. 29, where 89 Democrats and 162 Republicans voted in its favor and 14 representatives did not vote at al. While the Senate passed the bill 68 to 32 on Tuesday, Feb. 4, with bipartisan support and opposition, 44 Democrats and 22 Republicans voting in the bill's favor, with 23 Republicans and nine Democrats opposing it. The farm bill then advanced to the President to sign into law.

RELATED LINKS

  • Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013, H.R.2642 (Engrossed in House [Passed House] - EH)[H.R.2642.EH][PDF]

Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.