WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Wednesday authorized nearly $1 trillion in spending on farm and nutrition programs that are included in a five-year farm bill.
The legislation was the product of months of negotiations between the House and Senate over regional as well as philosophical differences that has delayed reauthorization of expiring farm policies for more than two years.
The Arkansas delegation, which included two members of the negotiating team, is supporting the compromise – with the exception of Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle.
Cotton was one of 63 House Republicans to vote against the bill. In a statement, Cotton said he could not support a bill that continued to link farm and nutrition programs. He also raised concerns that it left in place policies that will harm cattle ranchers.
"This bill spends too much and leaves Arkansas farmers with too little," Cotton said. "Also, it imposes unfair regulations on livestock producers, opening all Arkansas farmers to retaliatory tariffs."
The vote was 251-166. The majority of House Democrats voted against the bill because it cuts more than $8 billion from food stamps, largely through a reduction in expanded benefits in about a dozen states. Arkansas is not one of them.
Cotton’s opposition to the farm bill drew an immediate response from Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. The two are squaring off in what is expected to be among the most hotly contested Senate races in 2014.
"In voting against the farm bill, Congressman Cotton once again sided with his special interest allies, the same Washington groups spending millions on his campaign that urged him to oppose the farm bill," Pryor said.
Reps. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, and Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, supported the bill. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., also issued a statement in support that urged the Senate to take up the bill as soon as possible.
Crawford and Boozman were both members of the conference committee responsible for negotiating a final deal after the House and Senate passed conflicting bills. Among the major disagreements the conference resolved was the extent of reductions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The Senate had called for $4 billion in cuts while the House approved $40 billion over the next decade. The final version was about $8 billion.
The two chambers had also disagreed on crop insurance, with the Senate initially opposed to providing southern rice and peanut growers with an alternative program that would protect against unforeseen production costs rather than crop failures due to weather.
"This bill provides a strong safety-net that protects all producers from market risks, while expanding access to crop insurance so that it works in the Mid-South," Crawford said on the House floor. "In addition, we can finally provide relief to our cattlemen by permanently reauthorizing disaster assistance programs after years of hardship, resulting from drought and adverse weather."
Womack also spoke on the House floor in support of the bill even as he complained that it failed to address major concerns raised by cattle, poultry and pork producers. Those industries wanted the bill to reign in regulations being imposed by the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyard Administration as well as Country-of-Origin Labeling.
There was strong opposition to doing so among Senate negotiators.
"For me it would be easy to vote against this conference report but unlike my Senate counterparts I recognize that in a divided government each side has to find common ground," Womack said.
Womack said that the final bill "moves the ball forward" by making needed reforms and reducing spending.
Crawford said that more could have been done — particularly to reduce the food stamp program — but in the end the agreement strikes a reasonable balance.
Griffin issued a statement in support of the bill saying it would provide certainty and some degree of stability to the agriculture sector – an industry critical to Arkansas.
"Conferees Rick Crawford and John Boozman have worked hard to maximize the reforms and savings in this bill, which repeals or consolidates nearly 100 USDA programs, establishes a new risk-management system to protect farmers who suffer significant losses, and ends direct payments — a significant and historic reform. Overall, this agreement cuts $23 billion in mandatory spending," Griffin said.
The Arkansas Farm Bureau issued a statement thanking the state delegation members who supported the bill.
"This is far from a perfect bill, but we do welcome the certainty it brings to farmers and ranchers," said Arkansas Farm Bureau President Randy Veach. "Having a five-year program, as opposed to year-by-year or ad-hoc programs, was imperative, particularly as we go about making planting and livestock decisions for the coming year."
Veach also spoke in favor of keeping farm and nutrition policies under a single bill rather than splitting the two as the House had previously considered.
"We believe that is a natural, and obvious, connection, where the production of food and the feeding of those in need are appropriately connected," Veach said.
Cotton remains opposed to the connection.
"This bill can only be called a food-stamp bill when nearly 80 percent of its funding doesn’t support farmers," he said. "Arkansas taxpayers cannot continue to foot the bill for President Obama’s failed policies and Arkansas farmers shouldn’t be held hostage to President Obama’s runaway food-stamp program."
The Oklahoma delegation split on the farm bill. Reps. Tom Cole, R-Moore, Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, and Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville, supported it while Reps. Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, and James Lankford, R-Edmond, opposed it.
Lucas, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, was a primary negotiator on the compromise bill. He noted that the legislation does away with a direct payment system that opponents have tried to reform for two decades. And, he said that the $23 billion in spending reductions projected over the next decade are substantial.
"If you look at the environment — the budget and deficits and the political rancor in both houses and across the country — not only is this a good farm bill it is a miraculous farm bill," Lucas said.