The Leahy Letter -- July 12, 2012
With current Farm Bill programs set to expire at the end of September, progress continues on producing a new 5-year Farm Bill. The Senate passed its version of a new Farm Bill last month, and this week committee action began on a counterpart version of the bill in the House of Representatives.
Vermont again has a major stake in the outcome and a close seat at the table as the bill is being written. Senator Leahy, the most senior member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, sums it up this way: “Agriculture is a lynchpin of Vermont’s economy, and every Farm Bill is a big deal for us.”
The Senate bill would accomplish $23 billion in deficit reduction, largely through program consolidations and by replacing costly commodity payment programs with a risk-management approach, based on crop insurance. The Senate Farm bill includes a wide range of other key initiatives important to Vermont, ranging from conservation programs and hunger prevention to organics and rural community development. Click here for a summary of Vermont-related highlights in the Senate Farm Bill.
The bill includes an entirely new approach, advocated by Senator Leahy on the Senate Agriculture Committee and supported by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Peter Welch, to help stabilize the dairy industry, which has been rocked by volatile and unmanageable price shifts in recent years. The new program has been forged through close consultation with Vermont’s dairy community, which has led in convincing dairy farmers in other regions of the importance of these reforms. The existing MILC safety net program simply pays farmers when the price of milk falls below a set level – a fixed safety net that does not address the underlying price fluctuations. The new approach approved by the Senate will allow each dairy farmer to buy insurance that pays out when the margin between the price farmers receive, and the cost of producing milk, drops too low. Each farmer can choose whether, and how much of a margin, to insure, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will provide the insurance at a lower cost for the first 4 million pounds of milk -- about the annual production of 200 to 250 cows.
The new dairy program for the first time aims to break what Senator Leahy calls the “rollercoaster” of wild price swings that periodically plague farmers, consumers and the industry. In the past, when the price of milk has dropped farmers have had no choice but to produce more milk just to pay their bills. That floods the market, leading to oversupply and further forcing down prices. The new dairy program approved by the Senate, and advocated in the House by Representative Welch, would pay farmers less per unit if they increase production at a time when prices are rapidly falling. The new program will discourage oversupply and curb the downward spirals in price.
Senator Leahy says, “This is the most significant improvement in national dairy policy in more than a decade. No dairy program in modern times has had this much of a consensus among farmers or in Congress. Vermont farmers deserve much of the credit for that by helping us design and forge this approach and by convincing their counterparts in other states to support it. This will give us a real opportunity to help derail the price rollercoaster that makes it so difficult for farmers to plan ahead and run their businesses. This makes the safety net stronger, while costing less than the program that it replaces.”
The bill also continues the successful and widely used Forest Legacy Program, a Leahy-authored initiative from the 2008 Farm Bill which already has conserved more than 2.2 million acres of working forest lands, including 77,714 acres in Vermont. The program operates at no cost to taxpayers and is funded through a small percentage of receipts from oil drilling on public lands.
In the Senate bill Senator Leahy also led in renewing the charter of the REAP Zone program, which has benefitted Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom through a variety of community development efforts over the last decade.
Senator Leahy offered his assessment of the Supreme Court’s ruling on June 28 to uphold the Affordable Care Act. The Court’s 5-4 decision was released by the Court three months after oral arguments concluded in March.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was signed into law in March of 2010, and many of the law’s key provisions are already being implemented across the country, benefitting Americans of all ages. In Vermont the law has already channeled $40 million into vital programs and improvements to health services, such as the creation of health center sites in underserved areas, support for family-to-family health information centers, and the provision of planning grants to bolster research to build a better health insurance marketplace in the state. Other provisions have enabled over 5,000 young adults in Vermont to stay on their parents' insurance policies, cut prescription drug costs for thousands of older Vermonters, and ended concern among 215,000 Vermonters that their insurers could drop their coverage due to preexisting conditions or by bumping into earlier lifetime benefit limits.
The Supreme Court considered many questions over three days or arguments, including whether the individual mandate requiring most Americans to obtain health insurance before 2014 is constitutional. The Court found that, “The most straightforward reading of the individual mandate is that it commands individuals to purchase insurance…the mandate may be upheld as within Congress’s power to ‘lay and collect Taxes.’”
Senator Leahy said, “[The] decision by the Supreme Court to uphold the Affordable Care Act is a win not only for the millions of Vermonters and other Americans who have long been victimized by a deeply flawed health care system, but for all Americans who will benefit as we continue to implement this landmark law. Now we should turn our attention to building on these reforms and improving them, for the benefit of all Vermonters and all Americans.”
As the deadline neared for thousands of students and their families, Congress finally reached an agreement to prevent the doubling of student loan interest rates that would have happened on July 1st. Federally subsidized Stafford loans help finance the education of 7.4 million students across the country, including nearly 20,000 in Vermont. For weeks partisan gridlock stalled action on this issue and was a source of frustration for many Vermonters, including Senator Leahy. He pointed out that “the tremendous outpouring of appeals to Congress for action, from students and their families and others, was a key factor in making this interest rate solution possible.”
The student loan extension was enacted as part of an unrelated renewal of U.S. highway construction and maintenance programs, and the offset proposed to pay for the one-year extension of the lower interest rate includes shortening the amount of time that full- and part-time students are eligible for an in-school interest subsidy.
Senator Leahy said, “This agreement will prevent the hike in interest rates that has been looming on the horizon, but it is not a permanent fix to a problem that saddles students with back-breaking debt. Congress must continue to work toward finding ways to make higher education more affordable.
More than 40 Vermont jobs were saved in June when Revision Military of Essex finalized plans to acquire MSA North America’s ballistic helmet business, which operates a helmet manufacturing facility in Newport.
Senator Leahy joined with Governor Shumlin to announce the acquisition and hailed the work of both companies and their value to Vermont. MSA-Newport manufactures the Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH), the lightweight, life-saving helmet issued to nearly every U.S. soldier.
Early in 2012, MSA informed Senator Leahy of its intent to exit the helmet manufacturing industry, a decision that left the future of the Newport facility hanging in the balance. Senator Leahy worked closely with Governor Shumlin and with Revision Military to ensure the jobs in Newport would be preserved.
Senator Leahy has been a longtime supporter of both Revision and MSA. As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and its Defense Subcommittee, which handles the Senate’s work in writing the annual Defense Department budget, Senator Leahy worked with MSA to develop and field the Advanced Combat Helmet by securing more than $10 million in research, development and procurement contracts for MSA. He has also worked with Revision Military to secure millions in military contracts for research, development and procurement of Revision's protective eyewear.
Senator Leahy said, “When I learned MSA planned to leave the military helmet business, my first concern was for the more than 40 remaining employees of MSA's Newport plant, many of whom Marcelle and I have met on our visits to the company. Recognizing the military still had helmet needs, that Revision was expanding into the helmet market, the superior quality of the helmets made in Newport, and the skilled workforce in Newport, I immediately began working with Governor Shumlin to see what could be done about keeping the facility operating.”
The Supreme Court, without argument or hearing, on June 25 concurred with a lower court’s decision to strike down a century-old Montana law prohibiting corporations from making contributions to political candidates. The decision falls in line with the Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, in which the Court found that restricting corporate campaign contributions amounted to a violation of the First Amendment and the right to free speech.
The Court’s ruling in Citizens United has been the topic of fierce debate and is the subject of continued discussion in Congress. As Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Leahy was the first to hold a hearing following that ruling. Senator Leahy has announced that a panel of the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on July 24 to examine pending proposals for constitutional amendments to mitigate the effects of Citizens United.
Several constitutional amendments to address the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case have been introduced in the Senate. Legislatively, Senator Leahy is a cosponsor of the DISCLOSE Act which would strengthen the campaign finance laws gutted by Citizens United. The bill would ensure that individual Americans, not corporate entities or other organizations, are still the primary players in elections.
Senator Leahy commented on the Court’s most recent ruling: “Montana’s law was enacted 100 years ago when Montana’s citizens got fed up with the massive bribery and corruption that enabled the ‘Copper Kings’ to dominate not only elections but all political debate in Montana. [T]he Court ignored this concrete evidence of corruption that led the State of Montana to enact its law a century ago, as well as precedent that has long been on the books in many states finding no constitutional concern with laws limiting corporate contributions.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on June 21 approved Senator Leahy’s Justice For All Reauthorization Act. This sweeping legislation builds on the existing law and includes provisions to help ensure that the criminal justice system functions fairly and justly.
Included in the bill are provisions to help remedy the rape-kit backlog facing many local and state law enforcement agencies, encouraging the testing of DNA evidence that can help convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent, and ensuring competent counsel for defendants to reduce the rate of wrongful convictions.
The Justice For All Act was originally enacted in 2004. Senator Leahy’s reauthorization bill will expand the scope of the existing law and continue to move the American criminal justice system forward, promoting equitable treatment of all victims and defendants as well as efficient programs and processes.
Senator Leahy said, “The Justice For All Act made major improvements to the nation’s criminal justice system. It is unacceptable to let victims live in fear while evidence languishes in storage and criminals remain on our streets. These reforms offer significant steps to ensure that rape kits and other critical DNA evidence is collected and tested as quickly as possible, no matter where it is located in the justice system.”
The 16th Annual Women’s Economic Opportunity Conference, organized by Senator Leahy, will be held on November 10, 2012. The conference will convene on the campus of the Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center, and will feature workshops aimed at helping women succeed both professionally and personally.
Last year’s conference drew nearly 700 Vermonters to hear the humble, warm and sometimes humorous life experiences of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. This year’s conference will explore Vermonters’ resiliency in the wake of an economic downturn and Tropical Storm Irene. There will also be new offerings for Vermont’s value-added food producers and for recent college graduates looking to stay in Vermont.
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