Farm bill discussions are once again echoing through the halls of Congress this week. The farm legislation overhaul, pushed by the White House as both a food AND jobs bill, includes a multi-billion dollar cut to direct farm payments in addition to a revamped crop insurance program.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R - Iowa: “All together, this is going to be the only bill that passes congress that saves money, this year, I’ll bet. I know we have six months left of this year yet, but I’ll bet this is the only one that’s going to save money and that saving adds up to $23 billion, mostly coming from direct payments.”
But farm state lawmakers face a stiff political headwind. Legislative gridlock in a presidential election year could prevent any bill - regardless of deficit reduction - from receiving bipartisan support. Many of the same party line concerns from previous farm bills were voiced on the Senate floor this week.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R – Alabama: “Under this reasoning, we should just increase the food stamp ten times, why not? We’re going to get more money back. Something that’s going to create a stimulus, bring in more money for the treasury, make the economy grow, why not pay for clothes, pay for your shoes, pay for you housing? Why not?”
As the farm bill crawls through tedious debate on the Senate floor, lawmakers have begun to propose hundreds of amendments to the omnibus spending package. One proposal from former USDA Secretary Mike Johanns has set its sights on the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. Senator Johanns’ farm bill amendment would prevent EPA officials from conducting aerial surveillance of controlled animal feeding operations – a practice used in Nebraska and Iowa in recent years.
Joshua Svaty, Senior Advisor EPA: “We found that its very cost effective and its also a very good way to see the enormity of the CAFOs that are doing the right thing and don’t really have a lot of problems. It allows us to find those CAFOs that need a lot of work and direction and invest our time and energy there.” (Mach 16 - 3729)
As Market to Market reported this spring, EPA officials met with Nebraska farmers in March to explain the aerial flyovers and calm privacy concerns.
Female Attendant: “In the majority of instances, you’re taking photographs of someone’s home in addition to a business facility. That’s very different than some of the cases out there where you’re taking photographs of some chemical manufacturing plant. And so I think that’s a very broad interpretation of what privacy rights we have – especially from the government.”
EPA REP: “This is a commercial operation that is being photographed. We can argue about the case law but EPA is on pretty solid legal grounds as far as the ability to do this.”
Female Attendant: “Have you actually litigated a case where the CAFO and the home on the property is part of the case-by-case analysis?”
EPA REP: “No it hasn’t been litigated. I guess we’d be looking for a case. We’re not focusing on the homes, we’re focusing on the feedlot for a minute of two and we move on. So to try to characterize it as though we’re focusing on the home and evading privacy rights associated with activity in or around the curtilage of that home…I think that’s a mischaracterization of what we’re doing here.”
Despite legal assurances from EPA, Senator Johanns claims his office has yet to receive proper explanation for the rural flyovers. In a statement this week, Johanns said: “Farmers and ranchers don’t trust EPA doing low-altitude surveillance flights over their operations. EPA’s surveillance program only adds to the deficit of trust this closed-door agency has earned of late. It’s past time for Congress to put an end to EPA's use of aerial surveillance.”
Its unknown what affect, if any, EPA enforcement of Clean Water Act regulations will have on farm bill legislation. Farm state lawmakers insist full passage of the bill is still possible prior to fall elections.