WASHINGTON — The House passed a five-year farm bill on Wednesday to revamp crop subsidies, conservation programs and food stamps, handing a major victory to Rep. Frank Lucas, the Oklahoma Republican who worked for years to craft legislation that could gain bipartisan support.
The bill, approved 251 to 166, now goes to the Senate, which is expected to pass it and send it to the president soon. Oklahoma lawmakers split on the measure as Lucas and Reps. Tom Cole, R-Moore, and Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville, voted for it, and Reps. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, and Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, opposed it.
Lucas, a rancher from Cheyenne and the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, had to battle his own party's leaders, Democrats and a wide range of special interest groups to keep the bill moving toward a compromise.
Wednesday, he said the “long and seemingly epic journey” had ended with legislation that improved the farm policies in place since 2008. The Congressional Budget Office, which estimated the bill's cost as if the policies would be in place for 10 years, said it would save $17 billion over that period.
Lucas and other supporters touted the elimination of controversial direct cash payments to landowners — many of whom don't plant crops — and the movement toward crop insurance as the primary safety net for farmers.
Besides crop insurance, the bill introduces new safety net mechanisms to protect farmers when crop prices drop.
Critics said those programs could wind up costing taxpayers far more than estimated.
“Any slight dip (in prices) will mean huge payments going out in the future,'' said Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis.
Robert Hubbard, a Canadian County Republican who announced this week that he would challenge Lucas in the 3rd District, said the estimated savings in the bill were “smoke and mirrors” and that the legislation contained “massive spending increases” compared to the 2008 farm bill.
The large majority of the money in the bill goes to the food stamp program, which exploded in cost after the economic downturn in 2008.
Praise and criticism
Cole, who said he had 14,000 farmers and ranchers in his district, praised the bill for preserving American farmers' “capability to provide more food and fiber than any other country.”
National trade groups for wheat, corn, soybean and cotton growers supported the compromise bill, but meat producers worked against it, complaining that lawmakers should have repealed the law that mandates country-of-origin labeling.
Lankford, who is running for the U.S. Senate, cited the labeling as one of the reasons he voted against the bill. Lankford voted for an earlier version of the bill last June that didn't include repeal of the labeling mandate.
The earlier House version had much deeper cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, which accounts for $756 billion of the bill's 10-year price tag of $956 billion.
The measure approved Wednesday would cut about $8.6 billion from the food program over 10 years, mostly by limiting the practice in 16 states of raising a household's monthly payment by signing them up for a token amount of heating bill assistance.
Many Democrats opposed the bill because of the food stamp cuts.
Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., said the change in so-called “heat-and-eat” payments would affect 250,000 SNAP cases in her state.
“How can I explain the change is minor when they lose $90 a month?” Moore said.
Conservation groups praised several elements of the bill, including the requirement that producers who receive taxpayer subsidies for crop insurance premiums take steps to protect wetlands and prevent soil erosion.