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posted: 2/2/2014 6:03 AM

Farm lobby scores again as rural-urban allies top opponents

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  • Cattle feed in a barn at Hunter Haven Dairy Farm in Pearl City, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014.

    Cattle feed in a barn at Hunter Haven Dairy Farm in Pearl City, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014.
    Bloomberg News

Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON -- A coalition spanning grocer Kroger to Iowa soybean growers was victorious with Congress on a deal on a five-year agriculture bill.

The accord, which lawmakers estimate will save $23 billion over 10 years, reflects the clout of rural and urban allies who hung together even when the House of Representatives split them apart, as well as lots of lobbying money. In all, groups pressing for the bill spent more than $100 million in the first nine months of last year.

The bipartisan agreement cuts food stamps, the biggest U.S. Department of Agriculture program, less than Republicans demanded while modifying subsidy programs for crop growers and leaving mostly unscathed companies that provide insurance for farmers.

"The great thing the ag coalition did was include inner- city and suburban food-stamp recipients in addition to the more conservative farmers," said Steve Bell, a former top Republican Senate budget aide and now senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. "The combination of strong Republican advocates and Democratic food stamps advocates is unbeatable."

Passage would wind down the agriculture community's toughest fight in almost two decades as the influx of House lawmakers vowing to curb spending and end subsidy programs tried to rewrite the legislation. Lawmakers predicted the measure would easily pass the Senate after House approval, which could come as early as Wednesday and has the support of Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican.

At least 325 companies and organizations, including Monsanto, PepsiCo, and Dean Foods, registered as lobbyists in 2013 to work on the Senate's farm bill through the end of October -- the fifth-most of any legislation, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Only bills on the federal budget, appropriations, immigration and defense generated more lobbying interest, according to the center, a Washington-based research group that tracks campaign donations.

Agribusiness, an industry of crop and livestock producers, food manufacturers and dairy farmers among others, spent $111.5 million on lobbying in the same period, more than the defense industry and labor unions, according to the center.

Companies and individuals in agriculture made about $93 million in campaign donations during the 2012 presidential campaign and have given $20 million so far in 2014 congressional races.

The agreement on farm-policy legislation is among the few bipartisan achievements of this Congress, which this month cleared a $1.1 trillion spending bill and overcame disputes on presidential nominees to confirm more than a dozen.

"The conferees and their leadership have produced a framework that will serve the best interests of soybean farmers," said Ray Gaesser, president of the St. Louis-based American Soybean Association and a farmer from Corning, Iowa.

It's a missed opportunity for sanity in agricultural policy, said Andy Roth, vice president of government affairs for Club for Growth in Washington, which supported treating food stamps and farm policy in separate bills to cut costs for both. The group today urged lawmakers to oppose the bill and said it will include the vote on its score card used to rate members of Congress in their re-election campaigns.

"This 949-page bill is yet another bloated proposal that House and Senate leaders are rushing through Congress without giving members and the public enough time to read and understand the bill.," said Roth in a statement announcing the Club's position."This bill continues, for blatant political reasons, the unholy marriage of agricultural subsidies and food stamps -- two completely separate issues."

"This logrolling prevents the long-term reforms that both farm programs and food stamps deserve," said Rep. Marlin Stutzman, an Indiana Republican. "As a farmer and a conservative, I cannot vote to take a step backward."

The legislation would cut food stamp spending by $8 billion over 10 years -- one-fifth of the $40 billion sought by Republicans and fought by Democrats and food retailers. Crop- growers facing loss of $50 billion in subsidies retained about two-thirds through other aid, and crop insurers that paid out $17 billion after the severe 2012 were largely unscathed.

"We have done nothing that changes eligibility or eliminates anyone from food assistance help," Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Monday. "We have gone after waste, fraud and abuse."

The bill governs farm subsidies, which encourages planting of soybeans, cotton and other crops that lower materials costs for commodity processors including Bunge Ltd. The legislation subsidizes crop-insurers such as Ace Ltd. and funds purchases at Kroger and other grocers through food stamps, its biggest expense.

Kroger, the biggest U.S. grocery-store chain, is "pleased that there appears to be growing, bipartisan support for the farm bill," Keith Dailey, spokesman for the Cincinnati-based company, in an email.

Reductions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, will affect consumer decisions, he said. "Our expectation is that customers may shift to spending more of their cash on food and less cash on other things," Dailey said.

Wells Fargo, which sells coverage to farmers through Rural Community Insurance, said farm-bill passage "should help take some uncertainty out of the marketplace," Alan Elias, a spokesman for the San Francisco-based bank, said in an email. The company is the second-biggest provider of farm policies after Ace, which had no comment.

Some lobbying groups expressed disappointment with compromises.

A plan to raise a cap on crop-subsidy payments to as much as $250,000 per farm couple from $100,000, sought by southern cotton and rice growers whose farms are larger than their northern counterparts, showed "profound disrespect for the democratic process" by changing policies already agreed to in both chambers, according to the Washington-based National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Groups representing meatpackers such as Tyson Foods that sought to roll back meat-labeling standards challenged at the World Trade Organization said they'd oppose the bill, which left the rule intact.

"This retaliation will be crippling to our industries and threaten the long-term relationship with two of our most important export markets," the groups wrote in a letter to the top four conference committee negotiators Monday.

Many Democrats also were unhappy with cuts in food stamps, especially as some farmers may be in line for higher subsidies, a contrast that Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut this month said was "unconscionable."

While food-stamp advocates didn't get everything they wanted, their role in the coalition prevented cuts from being any deeper, Bell said.

During the bill's journey to final action, the House refused to consider a Senate-passed plan in 2012 and then rejected the Senate's measure last year.

At one point, the House passed separate initiatives governing farm aid and food stamps. Those proposals were reconnected in negotiations with senators that produced yesterday's deal.

The House rejection in 2013 stung Speaker John Boehner, who backed the bill, then lost support from more than a quarter of his caucus. Further embarrassments continued through the government shutdown last year, finally causing the Ohio Republican to ignore some party colleagues to pass legislation.

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