A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

House passes Farm Bill … sort of; bright spot is hemp amendment that was kept in tact

By Tim Thornberry
KyForward correspondent

You can’t say the U.S. House of Representatives refuses to pass a farm bill anymore, but the legislation passed yesterday came at quite a cost, according to many lawmakers and farm organizations.

The bill, which has long included the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), was separated to make the two separate pieces of legislation and passed the House on Thursday with a vote of 216-208.

The vote came along party lines for the most part. Not one Democrat voted for it, neither did 12 Republicans. The same was true for Kentucky’s Congressional delegation. Rep. John Yarmuth, the only Democrat of the group, was the only no vote.

Last month, the House surprisingly failed to pass the bill after passage came in the Senate. Since then efforts had been made to get the two issues separated.

Congressman Marlin Stutzman, a Republican from Indiana, was one of those adamant that nutrition policy should not be included in a farm bill.

“Transparent government won an important victory today,” he said after the vote. “Conservatives seized an opportunity to split the Farm Bill, a landmark reform that breaks the unholy alliance between food stamps and agriculture policy. For the first time since the 1970s taxpayers will have an honest look at how Washington spends their money on agriculture and food stamp policy.

Stutzman added, “As a fourth-generation farmer, I am proud of my work to pass the first true, farm-only Farm Bill in more than four decades. This is just the first of many reforms and I look forward to working with my colleagues to continue reducing the size of a government that has driven taxpayers nearly $17 trillion in debt.”

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson wasn’t nearly as happy over the vote. He said in a statement, the strictly partisan vote to pass the farm bill apart from the nutrition title undermines the long-time coalition of support for a unified, comprehensive farm bill which has historically been written on a bipartisan basis.

“NFU will continue to do all it can to get a reasonable bill through the conference process,” he added. “Any final legislation must continue existing permanent law provisions and include meaningful safety net protections for both family farmers facing difficult times and the food insecure.”

A conference committee will be the next stop where Senate Democrats are poised to strike back.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said after the vote, “The bill passed by the House today is not a real Farm Bill and is an insult to rural America, which is why it’s strongly opposed by more than 500 farm, food and conservation groups. We will go to conference with the bipartisan, comprehensive Farm Bill that was passed in the Senate that not only reforms programs, supports families in need and creates agriculture jobs, but also saves billions more than the extremely flawed House bill.”

Those 500-plus farm organizations sent a letter last week to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) asking to bring back the bill for a vote and not to split the nutrition title. The American Farm Bureau Federation helped to gather the group together to make their case.

In part, the letter read, “Farm bills represent a delicate balance between America’s farm, nutrition, conservation, and other priorities, and accordingly require strong bipartisan support. It is vital for the House to try once again to bring together a broad coalition of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to provide certainty for farmers, rural America, the environment and our economy in general and pass a five-year Farm Bill upon returning in July. We believe that splitting the nutrition title from the rest of the bill could result in neither farm nor nutrition programs passing, and urge you to move a unified farm bill forward.”

The group seemingly got little they asked for. In addition to stripping out the SNAP provisions, the bill also repeals “Permanent Law,” which refers to the Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1938 and the Agricultural Act of 1949. The provisions in those laws are actually still on the books. Each time a farm bill passes, those regulations are amended, but in the event a bill can’t be passed, agriculture administration would fall back to the provisions contained in those laws. Legislators have used the threat of a return to those 1940s regulations in years passed to get new farm bills passed.

AFBF President Bob Stallman said that agency looked forward to moving ahead with fundamental farm policy legislation.

“While we don’t yet know what the next steps will be, we will be working with both sides of the aisle and both chambers of Congress to ensure passage of a new five-year Farm Bill,” he said. “While we were hopeful the Farm Bill would not be split, nor permanent law repealed, we will now focus our efforts on working with lawmakers to deliver a farm bill to the president’s desk for his signature by September.”

There was some jubilation over passage of the bill not necessarily because of the bill itself but because of a hemp amendment that stayed in the legislation.

The bill would allow universities to grow hemp for research purposes in states with laws that would allow hemp to be grown.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer made national news during the state’s last General Assembly session by supporting and helping push through a bill to allow Kentucky producers the ability to grow hemp if the federal government allows it.

“Without a doubt, this was an historic day for industrial hemp in America,” Comer said. “There’s a long way to go in the legislative process. And I won’t be satisfied until Kentucky farmers can legally grow industrial hemp again. But I am pleased that we have made it this far.”

Comer added that it wasn’t that long ago that people told us we wouldn’t even get a sponsor for the bill in the state Senate.

“Now we have a state law for regulating hemp production, and one house of Congress has passed legislation to allow colleges and universities to grow hemp. This has been an amazing journey. And we’re not finished,” he said.

Tim Thornberry is a freelance writer and photographer who has covered Kentucky agricultural and rural issues for various publications since 1995. 

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