Thursday's confirmed sighting of rare harmony in the U.S. Senate could ultimately save American taxpayers about $23 billion. By a 64-35 vote, senators passed a five-year, half-trillion-dollar farm bill that affects much more than farms. It also affects anyone who consumes farm products, as well as 46 million food stamp recipients. In other words, all of us.There's plenty to like in this bill, which includes significant contributions by senators from the Pacific Northwest.
We'd like to think House members will seize this momentum and pass the Senate bill, or a similar version. But that probably won't happen. Many representatives will fight for even more cuts, especially in a food stamps program that has grown to $75.7 billion annually. If they're smart, though, they'll take what the Senate is offering, run with it and then campaign robustly back home on their success as cutters of $23 billion.
Most of the savings would be achieved by eliminating most farm subsidies. The Columbian has said for years that farmers should not be subsidized by the government for crops that are not grown. Such foolishness -- which costs taxpayers about $5 billion a year -- is amplified by the Great Recession, and by the fact that net farm income this year is projected to be the second-highest ever, about $91.7 billion. Severely cutting farm subsidy programs and expanding crop insurance programs, the Senate approved what Bloomberg News calls "the biggest (farm) policy change in decades."
House members, what more do you want? Cuts in the food stamp program? They're there. The Senate approved $4 billion in cuts over 10 years, adding tighter eligibility requirements including a ban on food stamps for lottery winners and affluent college students, plus a crackdown on benefit trafficking.
The amendments contributed by Northwest senators are noteworthy. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., made sure that a pilot program will be launched to include more peas, lentils, beans and chickpeas on school cafeteria menus. That's a big plus for Washington farmers, as is another Cantwell amendment that boosts research programs for apples, potatoes, cherries and other popular Washington crops. Also, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., included one amendment encouraging school districts to purchase locally grown food, and another that allows micro-loans to "gleaners," who go into fields to salvage unpicked or damaged food that can still be consumed.
If it's conservative blessings the House members seek, they should consider the words of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who called the new farm bill "one of the finest moments in the Senate in recent times in terms of how you pass a bill." Or they should listen to one of their colleagues, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, who acknowledged there will be differences in the House bill, but "I hope my colleagues are encouraged by this success."
The new farm bill is not perfect, but neither is Congress, and there's a lot more to like about the new farm bill than the current Congress. House members can help stop their plummeting popularity ratings by viewing the Senate farm bill as Americans, not as politicians.