PLEASE NOTE - Contents in the NFU News Clips are presented from their original sources. National Farmers Union does not have editorial control over the content. NFU does not endorse the views and issues contained in these articles and they do not necessarily represent NFU's official policy and positions. The News Clips are intended to provide news stories as they are presented by the media.
Votes To Make Small Cut To Food Stamps
May 21, 2013
Mary Clare Jalonick
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate voted Tuesday to keep a $400 million annual cut — or roughly a half of 1 percent — to the food stamp program as part of a major five-year farm bill.
Food stamps now cost almost $80 billion annually and are used by 1 in 7 Americans. The House and Senate have differed sharply on how much the domestic food aid should be cut, with the House version of the farm bill proposing to cut five times more than the Senate bill and change eligibility rules for recipients.
The Senate Agriculture Committee included the small cut in its version of the farm bill in an effort to appease the House Republicans and also to end what its chairwoman, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said was a misuse of the program. The Senate bill would target states that give people who don't have heating bills very small amounts of heating assistance so they can automatically qualify for higher food stamp benefits.
With Stabenow objecting to both amendments, the chamber rejected, 58-40, a Republican effort to expand the cuts and also rejected, 70-26, a Democratic effort to eliminate them. The amendment by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., would have expanded the cuts to $3.5 billion a year; the amendment by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would have eliminated the cuts.
Resolving the differences on food aid, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, between the two chambers will be key to passage of the massive five-year farm bill that lawmakers are attempting to push through for the third year in a row. The far-reaching bill costs almost $100 billion annually and would set policy for farm subsidies, rural programs and the food aid.
The House version of the farm bill would cut $2 billion a year, or a little more than 3 percent, from the food aid program, which has more than doubled in cost since 2008.
Last year more than 47 million people used SNAP. The rolls rose rapidly because of the economic downturn, rising food prices and expanded eligibility under the 2009 economic stimulus law.
Republicans criticized President Barack Obama in last year's presidential campaign for the expansion of the program, and many House conservatives have refused to consider a farm bill without cuts to food stamps.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday he was "deeply concerned" about the House food stamp cuts, which he said would "deny struggling families and their children access to food assistance."
The House legislation would make cuts similar to the Senate bill and also eliminate what is called categorical eligibility, or giving people automatic food stamp benefits when they sign up for certain other programs. The Roberts amendment would have made similar changes.
The Senate is expected to consider several more amendments to the farm bill this week, including cuts to government-subsidized crop insurance.
The Senate passed a similar farm bill last year, but the House did not consider it. The House Agriculture Committee approved its version of the farm bill last week and the full House is expected to vote on the bill this summer.
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2. Senate rejects farm bill amendments
aimed at changing cuts to food stamps
May 21, 2013
The Senate rejected two amendments to the farm bill Tuesday that would have changed the $4 billion-worth of cuts to food stamps.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) introduced an amendment that would have cut at least an additional $12 billion for the supplemental food assistance program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. His amendment failed on a 40-58 vote.
“My goal is simple to restore integrity to the supplemental food assistance program,” Roberts said ahead of the vote.
The Senate is considering a $955 billion five-year farm bill and amendment votes are expected to continue throughout the week.
S. 954 would cut more than $23 billion from current spending levels over 10 years, including $4 billion-worth of cuts in food stamps, which has led to some Democratic opposition.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced an amendment, which would have restored the $4 billion in cuts to food stamps. Her amendment failed on a 26-70 vote, shortly after Roberts'. Gillibrand said during a recession, Congress should not be cutting food assistance.
“As a lawmaker and mother, watching a child, a senior, a veteran go hungry is something I will not stand for and neither should anyone else in this body,” Gillibrand said on Tuesday. “If you believe that feeding hungry children is the right thing to do, then stand with us. … Let’s keep food on the tables of people who need it.”
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) urged senators to vote against both amendments. She said that the committee’s $4 billion cuts addressed only “waste, fraud and abuse” within the food stamp program.
“Every family that currently qualifies for nutrition assistance in this country continues to get that assistance,” Stabenow said of the food stamp changes in the farm bill. “We do make sure there is integrity in the programs.”
Stabenow also pointed out that the $4 billion in saving from food stamp reductions offset a much-needed increase in the crop insurance protections for farmers.
Roberts said more cuts were needed to bring the Senate bill closer inline with the House farm bill, which cuts more than $20 billion in food stamps.
“We can restore integrity to the SNAP program while still providing the benefits of those who truly need it,” Roberts said. “I am not proposing a dramatic change in food assistance programs.”
Roberts said his amendment would have saved $12 billion by ending a loophole that some states use to automatically enroll people who received assistance on their energy bills under LIHEAP into the food stamp program without evaluating household assets. He said his bill would have saved even more because it also would have eliminated “duplicative training and enrollment programs” under TANIF and stopped “awards for state agencies for basically doing their job” by enrolling people in food assistance programs.
The House has a $940 billion farm bill that cuts spending by $39.7 billion over 10 years — $20.5 billion are cuts to food stamps. The House bill likely won’t get a floor vote until June.
The White House has said it supports the Senate farm bill.
This article was updated at 5 p.m. to include the vote on Gillibrand's amendment.
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3. Senate rejects farm bill food stamp
May 21, 2013
The Senate defeated two amendments to change food stamp spending in a farm bill being debated on the floor Tuesday. One, introduced by Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) would have saved an estimated $31 billion over ten years. The other, proposed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) would have rolled back the committee's cuts of $4 billion over a decade.
Roberts' amendment was defeated 58 to 40, with a few Republicans, including the ag committee's ranking Republican, Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, voting with Democrats against it. Gillibrand's effort to avoid nearly all cuts to food stamps lost by a vote of 26 to 70. Opponents included many Democrats from farm states such as Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and Al Franken of Minnesota.
Late in the afternoon, Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), thanked her colleagues for making "great progress today."
"We are working hard to do everything possible to complete this legislation by the end of the week," she said.
The Senate bill does trim $4 billion from nutrition programs that include food stamps with several reforms. It gives USDA more money to prevent trafficking of food assistance benefits. It bans lottery winners from receiving food stamps and narrows eligibility for food stamps by college students. And it makes it harder for states to qualify recipients of federal aid for winter heating bills to also get food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP).
That last heating assistance loophole is viewed differently by Roberts and Gillibrand.
According to Roberts' office, his amendment would eliminate the loophole affecting the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Participating state agencies annually issue extremely low LIHEAP benefits to qualify otherwise ineligible households for Standard Utility Allowances, which result in increased monthly SNAP benefits.
"For example, today a State agency can issue $1 annually in LIHEAP benefits to increase monthly SNAP benefits an average of $90 ($1,080 per year) for households that do not otherwise pay out-of-pocket utility bills," said a statement from Roberts' office.
Roberts also deals with SNAP benefits going to those receiving cash assistance as part of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF). Currently, States can automatically enroll recipients of the TANF program in SNAP, a procedure known as categorical eligibility.
At the encouragement of USDA, States are exploiting this provision by providing minimal TANF assistance to recipients in the form of informational brochures and 1–800 numbers which then qualifies them for SNAP benefits, Roberts' office said. Roberts’ amendment requires that a recipient qualify specifically for cash assistance to automatically receive SNAP food benefits.
On the Senate floor, Stabenow said Roberts' amendment " goes way beyond what we have done in committee."
SNAP spending is already declining as the economy improves, she said
Gillibrand argued against any cuts to heating assistance, saying it would hurt apartment dwellers whose higher fuel costs don't show up in utility bills.
"When congress proposes cuts to the food stamps program, it is not nameless, faceless people looking for a handout," Gillibrand said.
Instead, those hurt will mainly be children, seniors and veterans.
Stabenow reluctantly opposed Gillibrand's amendment, too.
Roberts insisted that the Senate bill won't cut benefits to anyone who qualifies for food stamps and that Stabenow isn't trying to hurt the program.
"To say she is against food stamps for needy people, is ridiculous," Roberts said of Stabenow.
Roberts said the Gillibrand amendment was also aimed at crop insurance. It would have lowered the return on investment for crop insurers to 12% a year from the current 14% allowed by USDA. The Obama Admidministration has also proposed that change, which would save about $1.2 billion over a decade.
Last week the Administration repeated its call for more cuts to crop insurance spending in the farm bill, which were laid out when it released its proposed 2014 budget in April.
The Senate's farm bill expands crop insurance spending, which is likely to be a target of more amendments.
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Overhaul Wins Panel’s Backing in the Senate
The New York Times
May 21, 2013
Ashley Parker and Julia Preston
WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved a broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws on a bipartisan vote, sending the most significant immigration policy changes in decades to the full Senate, where the debate is expected to begin next month.
The 13-to-5 vote came as the committee reached a deal on one of the final snags threatening the legislation — and agreed to hold off on a particularly politically charged amendment, which would have added protections for same-sex couples.
After intense behind-the-scenes negotiations, Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, struck an agreement with the group of eight senators who drafted the original bill to address his concerns about visas for skilled foreign workers who could fill jobs in the high-tech industry.
By late afternoon on Tuesday, Mr. Hatch had said that he would support the bill out of committee, if not necessarily on the Senate floor, after the committee agreed, via a voice vote, to pass his amendment.
“I’m going to vote this bill out of committee because I’ve committed to do that,” Mr. Hatch said.
Authors of the legislation hoped for a strong vote out of committee to help the bill as it heads to the Senate floor. Mr. Hatch’s support could help persuade other conservative Republicans to back the bill. He was joined in his “yes” vote by Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republican members of the bipartisan group.
The most emotional part of the committee process, which stretched over five days and 301 amendments, came late Tuesday, when Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who leads the committee, said that he would not offer an amendment allowing United States citizens to apply for permanent resident status, known as a green card, on behalf of their same-sex partners.
Mr. Leahy, according to immigration and gay rights advocates, was under pressure from the White House not to offer this amendment. Though both President Obama and Democrats in the bipartisan group support protections for same-sex couples in the bill, Republicans in the group have warned that such provisions would lead them to abandon the legislation.
Before Mr. Leahy announced his decision, Democratic senators, all of whom personally supported the provision, engaged in a lengthy and agonizing debate.
Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York and an author of the measure, said that not including the provision amounted to “rank discrimination.” But he ultimately concluded, “As much as it pains me, I cannot support this amendment if it will bring down the bill.”
Similarly, Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, said: “This is the definition of a Hobson’s choice. In my bones, I believe in equality.”
But Mr. Graham reflected the view of his Republican colleagues when he said: “You’ve got me on immigration. You don’t have me on marriage. If you want to keep me on immigration, let’s stay on immigration.”
Ultimately, Mr. Leahy withheld his amendment “with a heavy heart,” though he can still bring it up on the Senate floor.
Mr. Hatch’s amendment, which reflects the compromise he reached after lengthy negotiations led by Mr. Schumer, raises the minimum number of visas annually for high-skilled foreign workers — known as H-1B visas — to 115,000, from 110,000 in the bill, while keeping the maximum at 180,000 a year. More important, aides to Mr. Hatch said, his provision includes a mechanism based on conditions in the labor market, intended to ensure that companies based in the United States can bring in qualified foreign workers when jobs are not filled by Americans, but decreases visas when they are.
His provision would also make it easier for employers to hire foreign workers, because it lightens the burden on them to demonstrate that they first tried to hire a qualified American worker.
Mr. Hatch’s amendment clarifies distinctions between companies in which the majority of engineers and computer technicians are Americans, and companies with mostly foreign workers. Under the measure, more stringent restrictions would apply to the companies with a foreign labor force, like many Indian outsourcing companies, raising incentives to hire more Americans.
Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a Democratic member of the bipartisan group, had been one of the last holdouts against Mr. Hatch’s amendment. Along with Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, Mr. Durbin worried that Mr. Hatch’s provisions would harm American workers.
But on Tuesday, Mr. Durbin signaled that he would support Mr. Hatch’s plan.
“I would like to have seen a different amendment, a different bill — you would have as well,” Mr. Durbin said. “But this is a dramatic improvement.” (Mr. Grassley, meanwhile, remained unconvinced, arguing, “Let’s see how much this stinks.”)
Mr. Durbin made it clear that he expected Mr. Hatch’s support in return for his own vote in favor of the deal, saying: “A number of us have really leaned a long way in your direction to get your support for immigration reform.”
Mr. Hatch had previously said that he believed his amendment “makes this bill a much more acceptable bill,” especially in the Republican-controlled House, where it is likely to face stiff opposition.
The agreement represents a win for the high-tech industry, and comes on the heels of intense lobbying by the industry. The Association for Competitive Technology, a trade group, sent 50 executives and application developers to Washington on Monday and Tuesday to meet with lawmakers, including members of the Judiciary Committee.
Richard L. Trumka, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the nation’s largest federation of unions, issued a statement against what he said were Mr. Hatch’s “antiworker amendments.”
After passage, President Obama congratulated the committee and called the legislation “largely consistent with the principles of common-sense reform I have proposed and meets the challenge of fixing our broken immigration system.” He urged the Senate to improve it further on the Senate floor.
As the committee was finishing its work, a drumbeat against an immigration overhaul began to pick up. Dozens of high-profile conservative leaders and activists signed an open letter published Tuesday that denounced the bipartisan bill, saying the Senate
“would do better to start over from scratch.”
The conservatives said the bill was “bloated and unwieldy,” comparing it to President Obama’s health care bill.
Still, when the committee voted to approve the legislation Tuesday evening, a cheer and applause rang out through the room, as immigration advocates leapt to their feet, shouting “Yes we can!” and “Sí, se puede!”
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5. Pesticides Make a Comeback
The Wall Street Journal
May 21, 2013
Corn that has fallen over or 'lodged' as a result of rootworm damage.
Insecticide sales are surging after years of decline, as American farmers plant more corn and a genetic modification designed to protect the crop from pests has started to lose its effectiveness.
The sales are a boon for big pesticide makers, such as American Vanguard Corp.AVD +0.94% and Syngenta SYNN.VX -0.47% AG. But it has sparked fresh concerns among environmental groups and some scientists that one of the most widely touted benefits of genetically modified crops—that they reduce the need for chemical pest control—is unraveling. At the same time, the resurgence of insecticides could expose both farmers and beneficial insects to potential harm.
Until recently, corn farmers in the U.S. had largely abandoned soil insecticides, thanks mostly to a widely adopted genetic trait developed by Monsanto Co. MON -1.61% that causes corn seeds to generate their own pest-killing toxins, but which the Environmental Protection Agency says doesn't hurt humans.
The modified seeds, first introduced in 2003, proved to be largely effective against the corn rootworm, a voracious bug that is the main scourge of the nation's largest crop. Today, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, two-thirds of all corn grown in the U.S. includes a rootworm-targeting gene known as Bt.
As more farmers switched to the modified seed, the share of corn acreage treated with insecticide fell to 9% in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, from 25% in 2005, according to USDA data. Those farmers who continued to use insecticide applied less in 2010, the data showed.
In 2011, however, entomologists at Iowa State University and the University of Illinois started to document rootworms that were immune to the Monsanto gene, and have found these resistant pests scattered across the Midwest. Now, many farmers have decided they need to spray their soil to kill any rootworms that have developed Bt resistance, as well as growing populations of other pests.
Scott Greenlee, who farms 1,700 acres in Sac City, Iowa, said he planned to start using a soil insecticide this year after part of his crop succumbed to rootworms in 2012. The 53-year-old Mr. Greenlee, who had planted Monsanto's Bt corn, said the affected fields produced just 50 or 60 bushels per acre, about a third of his normal yield. "It was a train wreck," he added.
Also driving insecticide use is the rising share of farmland planted to corn, as farmers seek to take advantage of corn prices that are about double their historic norms. U.S. farmers planted 97 million acres of corn last year, the most since the 1930s and up from 75.7 million in 2001.
The government doesn't track insecticide use annually, but U.S.-based American Vanguard and FMC Corp. FMC -0.51% and Switzerland-based Syngenta, which account for more than three-quarters of the market for soil pesticides, reported significantly higher sales last year and in early 2013.
Syngenta, one of the world's largest pesticide makers, reported that sales of its major soil insecticide for corn, which is applied at planting time, more than doubled in 2012. Chief Financial Officer John Ramsay attributed the growth to "increased grower awareness" of rootworm resistance in the U.S. Insecticide sales in the first quarter climbed 5% to $480 million.
American Vanguard bought a series of insecticide companies and technologies during the past decade, betting that insecticide demand would return as Bt corn started losing its effectiveness. In the past couple of years, that wager has paid off.
The Newport Beach, Calif., company reported that its soil-insecticide revenue jumped 50% in 2012, and company earnings climbed 70% as its stock price doubled. Its insecticide sales rose 41% in the first quarter to $79 million, with gains driven by corn insecticide.
FMC, based in Philadelphia, reported a 9% increase in first-quarter sales in its agricultural business, which includes insecticides and herbicides, following a 20% increase in the fourth quarter. The gains are due in part to concerns about resistance, company officials said.
"The whole industry has seen a resurgence," said Aaron Locker, marketing director for FMC, which has annual revenue of more than $3 billion.
Monsanto, the world's largest seed company by sales, became the first company to sell rootworm-resistant corn to farmers a decade ago and has licensed the Bt gene to other seed makers.
In approving the original Monsanto product, the EPA said reduced insecticide use was one of the "significant benefits." The seed, the EPA said, would "provide the grower and other occupational workers greater safety, protect water bodies from [agricultural] runoff and mitigate" potential harm to birds and other organisms.
Monsanto said it continues to recommend that farmers rotate their fields from corn to other crops, such as soybeans, which "breaks the rootworm cycle." The St. Louis company also said it and other companies are selling seeds with more than one rootworm-resistant trait.
Scientists have confirmed rootworm resistance only to the Monsanto seed that includes just one rootworm trait. Monsanto is phasing out that seed in favor of a multiple-trait version. And Monsanto says it is developing new technology to fight rootworms, which it hopes to put on the market by the end of the decade.
But some scientists say rootworm resistance could be a persistent problem. The EPA has said that rootworms that have developed resistance to Monsanto's first trait are more likely to develop resistance to other rootworm traits as well.
Crop consultants and researchers said the population of pests other than rootworm has increased in many parts of the Midwest because farmers are planting corn every year, and because some stopped using pesticides altogether after adopting Monsanto's Bt corn, even though it isn't designed to kill pests other than rootworms.
"When Bt hybrids were introduced, one upside was a reduction in soil insecticides," said Michael Gray, an entomologist at the University of Illinois. "Some of those gains are quickly being reversed."
Mr. Gray, in surveys this past winter, found that roughly 50% of corn farmers planned to use both the Bt seed and a soil insecticide. He found that about a quarter of them planned to use insecticide as "cheap insurance" against the possibility of pest problem.
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