02.03.14

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) On The Farm Bill Agreement

We all know the Senate and House agriculture leaders unveiled the long-awaited conference report last week for the 2014 farm bill. It has been a long trip getting this far. Every conference committee, of course, has some controversy, but the 2014 farm bill has had more than its fair share of twists and turns--right down to the negotiations on the dairy policy in the fleeting hours--before we, as conferees, signed this conference report. It sounds like the old days of The Perils of Pauline when we had the farm bill tied to the railroad tracks or about to head over the dairy cliff.

   Fortunately, we had Chairwoman Stabenow, Ranking Member Cochran, and their superb staffs. I am also blessed with my own superb staff: Adrienne Wojciechowski, Kathryn Toomajian, Rebekah Weber, Kara Leene, and Tom Berry, all of whom spent hours away from their families while working on this important bill. We ended with a bipartisan, bicameral farm bill that addresses the needs of every region in the country. Senator Stabenow and I were on the phone or emailing about every hour of the day, night, and weekends from Michigan, Vermont, overseas, and from the Senate, but it worked. Everybody had a chance, Republicans and Democrats alike, to express their views. Now it is time to vote, pass the bill, send it to the President, and give sorely needed certainty to our farmers, our families, and our rural communities.

   After all, the 2014 farm bill saves taxpayers $23 billion. It eliminates duplicative programs. It strengthens the toolbox for conserving our natural resources. It gives the farmers some much-needed, long-overdue certainty as they make planting decisions. They don't have the luxury that we seem to give ourselves to wait until the very last second to vote on something. They have to plan months in advance.

   It provides relief to struggling families, support for rural communities, and investments in a sustainable energy future. Is it a perfect bill? Of course not. No farm bill is. But while there are provisions I would not have preferred, I do believe it has a lot of provisions that will benefit Vermont and the Nation.

   I wish the commonsense dairy policies that were passed twice by the full Senate and supported by Republicans and Democrats, by the chair and by the ranking member, and also by the House Committee on Agriculture had not been ambushed at the last hour. As a result, we don't have a market stabilization program--something that was proposed by dairy farmers themselves that would have protected taxpayers from the exorbitant costs and would have insulated dairy farmers and consumers from volatile rollercoastering milk prices.

   Unfortunately, the Speaker of the House and some of the very powerful, huge industry figures from out West did not want it.

   We do have, because of the constant work of everybody--and I again would praise the chair of our own committee, Senator Stabenow--a solution that while not perfect will help our small dairy farmers protect themselves from poor economic conditions when milk prices plummet or when feed prices skyrocket or, as we have sometimes seen in the worst scenario, when both happen at the same time. The final farm bill includes changes to lower the cost of the Dairy Producer Margin Protection Program for Vermont's small, family dairy farms. It will also discourage large dairies from using this program to flood the markets through overproduction of milk, something that wipes out small family farms.

But the bill is not just about farmers; it is a food bill that supports hungry children and struggling families and it has healthy food initiatives. I am disappointed the final bill contains many cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but the conferees worked together and rejected the deepest cuts to the hunger safety net and the most harmful new conditions which were advocated by an extreme majority in the House, both of which would have undermined the very reasonably offered food assistance. These provisions would have slashed nearly $40 billion from nutrition assistance programs, eliminating the eligibility for millions of Americans, and making it harder for hungry children to receive free school meals.

   Frankly, I am fed up with hearing Members, whether in the House or sometimes Members in this body, say: Oh, we can't afford to feed these hungry children when they go to school. These are the same Members who voted for a blank check to go to an unnecessary war in Iraq, something that has cost us $2 trillion, which they did on a credit card. We need to feed children in America so they might actually learn while they are at school, but some say: Oh, we can't afford that. Come on. Feeding those hungry children is an investment in the future of this great Nation.

   Some of the demeaning and offensive provisions, such as allowing drug testing of beneficiaries and unrealistic work requirements, were left out. You're telling me that we can have tax-paying, hard-working citizens, who, when factories close, won't be able to feed themselves with supplemental nutrition. We are going to demean them after what they have done for the country? Of course not.

   The legislation promotes food security in low-income communities and encourages healthy eating through increased access to fruits and vegetables. That is something we have done in Vermont for years and it is also one of the reasons--that and the fact we cover every child from birth to 18 years old for health care--that Vermont is always listed as either No. 1 or No. 2 of the healthiest States in the Nation.

   This legislation also--and again I wish to compliment the Chair on this--continues to share the responsibility to conserve our working farmlands and our natural resources. If we lose these natural resources, we can't make them again. We are not going to get them back. Federally supported crop insurance will ease farmers' exposure when natural disasters strike. It will keep working lands in production. Meanwhile, enlisting farmers to continue the simple conservation practices they are already following will ensure the protection of our wetlands and our sensitive lands.

   In a country as diverse as ours, it is no simple task to produce a farm bill that addresses the needs of every region or every industry or every priority. I am proud this is a bill that offers a targeted approach to tackling the needs of each State and agricultural sector, rather than doing it the easy way, which is a one-size-fits-all, which ends up not fitting anybody.

   The regional equity program guarantees that no State is left out from receiving conservation resources under the farm bill. Not only Vermont communities but rural America everywhere will be strengthened by a broadband development program, energy efficiency initiatives, and water treatment and distribution loans. Vermont's very beautiful Northeast Kingdom REAP Zone will continue to be a catalyst for growth and progress to help build a resilient rural economy. Organic agriculture is supported through certification cost sharing, stronger enforcement, crop insurance, and funding for organic research. We should promote organics because it is the fastest growing sector in agriculture.

   I am also pleased that many of the harmful provisions from the House farm bill were removed during the conference negotiations, including dangerous secrecy provisions and attacks on critical environmental regulations. One that was proposed by an extremely conservative Republican would have actually threatened to limit States rights. What an amazing turn of events. We got rid of all of these.

   Bottom line, the Senate and the House have produced a farm bill that at its core is about keeping America strong. Make no mistake, farming is part of our national security. Look at the number of nations in this world that would give anything to be able to feed themselves and have food left over to export. We are more secure as a nation because we can do that.

   This farm bill will boost the economy, will create jobs, will offer support for the hungry, conserve our national resources, improve our energy security, and stand up for our country's families. I am proud to have signed the conference report for another farm bill that will support Americans today and into America's future. I look forward to one of my few duties I get to perform after this bill passes: I will sign the bill as President pro tempore after the Speaker signs it. And I know from what he has said to all of us, the President will then sign it.

   I yield the floor.

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