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Just when it looked as if no legislation of any consequence would ever make it through the partisan gridlock in Washington, the 113th Congress approved three significant, bipartisan measures in three months, the latest a five-year farm bill passed last week that will impact everything from farm subsidies to food stamps. In fact, after years of haggling, that $956.4-billion package sailed through the Republican-controlled U.S. House and Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate — on votes of 251 to 166 and 68 to 32, respectively — in the span of a week. "Many people said this would never happen in this environment, but Congress has come together to pass a major bipartisan jobs bill," said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, (D-Michigan) chairwoman of her chamber's agriculture committee and the bill's author. "This effort proves that by working across party lines, we can save taxpayer money and create smart policies that lay the foundation for a stronger economy." Among the biggest changes mandated by the bill — HR 2642, which President Obama was expected to sign Feb. 7 — is the elimination of the controversial $5 billion in direct federal subsidies paid to farmers each year whether they grow crops or not. The bill offsets the impact of that major cutback on farmers by expanding the federal crop insurance program by $7 billion over the next decade. "Instead of getting a government check even in good times, farmers will pay an insurance bill every year and will only receive support from that insurance in years when they take a loss," Stabenow said. The change that has drawn the most attention, however, is the $8 billion cut HR 2642 makes to the food stamp program — formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — over the next decade. Proponents said that provision will close a loophole that allowed food-stamp recipients in 16 states to get more in benefits than they should have gotten. But anti-hunger advocates said the bill will cost about 1.7 million people in 15 states an average of $90 per month in benefits. "You are going to have to make a decision on what you are going to do, buy food or pay rent," said Sheena Wright, president of the United Way in New York. The 959-page bill also makes changes to the international food aid program, consolidates conservation programs and establishes a pilot program to encourage food-stamp recipients to purchase more fruits and vegetables. "This is not your father's farm bill," said Stabenow. But the bill has its share of critics, including those who say it contains dozens of provisions benefiting economic interests in various lawmakers' home states. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) took particular exception to a provision shifting inspections of catfish from the Food and Drug Administration to a new $20 million office at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which Southern lawmakers said was needed to ensure the proper inspection of imported catfish but McCain said was really aimed at limiting competition from Vietnam and other countries. "It seems that catfish is one bottom feeder with friends in high places," McCain said. Presumably, those more at the political poles than McCain also had much to dislike about the bill, given that the strategy of its backers was to ensure "a majority of the middle" would unite to pass it, according to U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank D. Lucas (R-Oklahoma), who sponsored HR 2642 in his chamber. "I'm quite certain that my very conservative friends and my very liberal friends won't be happy with the final product," he said in an interview. "Whether you want to define that as good legislating or a sign of the times, the folks with the hard perspective on both sides will not be pleased." Stabenow, at least, was pleased enough about the potential cost savings from the bill over the next decade — $16.6 billion, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates, and as much as $23 billion, factoring in sequestration cuts to agriculture programs — to issue a challenge to her fellow members of Congress. "We are the only part of the federal government to produce savings in our own areas of jurisdiction, and we eliminated about a hundred different programs or authorizations that...no longer made sense," she said in a C-SPAN interview. "And so I would challenge my colleagues — if they did what we did, we'd have a balanced budget." With the current Congress having mustered enough bipartisan support to pass a budget in December and a $1.1 trillion spending bill last month in addition to the farm bill, there may be more of a chance of that happening now than there's been in quite some time. (WASHINGTON POST, NEW YORK TIMES, BLOOMBERG)
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