Saturday, February 08, 2014

Ending Years Of Agridrama, President Obama Signs And Celebrates The New Farm Bill

POTUS signs the bill with Dem lawmakers & Sec. Vilsack
Snubbed by Republican lawmakers at signing ceremony, President says the sweeping $956.4 billion legislation "is not just about farmers," but will create "ladders of opportunity" to make 2014 "a breakthrough year for America"...
East Lansing, Michigan -- President Barack Obama on Friday celebrated the end of more than two years of bitter Congressional fighting over the Farm Bill, traveling to Michigan State University for a rare out-of town signing ceremony to inscribe his name on the hard-won Agriculture Act of 2014.  

The President trumpeted the massive $956.4 billion measure as a victory for his economic agenda, speaking to an excited crowd of about 500--farmers, students, VIPS and locals--who interrupted him frequently with cheers.  He was an incongruous if jaunty figure in his perfectly pressed black suit against the carefully crafted back-drop of gleaming green John Deere tractors, hay bales, and stacks of wooden crates bursting with fine local crops decorating the school's equestrian center.

 The President described the bill as a critical, all-encompassing policy product that includes "important reforms" and impacts every American.   

"Despite its name, the Farm Bill is not just about farmers," President Obama said.  

"It’s like a Swiss Army knife. It's like a Mike Trout," he explained, referring to the talented Los Angeles Angels center fielder who is an all-purpose magician on the field of dreams.

"It multi-tasks. It's creating more good jobs, gives more Americans a shot at opportunity."

POTUS onstage during his remarks
The bill sets policy and funding for the next five years on the nation's nutrition safety net ($756 billion), conservation ($56 billion), crop insurance ($89.8 billion), commodities ($44.4 billion), and subsidies.  

But it also includes a laundry list of programs for rural manufacturing, infrastructure, hospitals and schools, broadband, research, exports,  affordable housing, farmers markets, biofuels, climate change, among many other elements.  It cuts $23 billion from the deficit, after sequester cuts are figured in.

The bill, President Obama said, is crucial to his goal of making 2014 "a breakthrough year for America," the message he delivered in his State of the Union Address in January.   

The agriculture sector has remained a bright star in the US economy, with record outputs despite devastating drought and despite the economic downturn, which the President called "the Great Recession."

The bill will boost things further, the President said, and offer "ladders of opportunity" for hardworking middle class Americans.  It will help rural communities shake off the persistent poverty that besets 85% of counties, he said.  

It will help keep farmers on their land, he promised, and make it unnecessary for them to seek additional employment off farm to make ends meet.  It will also make it possible for younger Americans who are looking for work to stay in their rural communities, he said, rather than fleeing to cities for employment.

Approved in the Senate earlier this week on a vote of 68-32 and in the House last week on a vote of 251-166, the President hailed the legislation as a "truly" bipartisan measure, and said he hopes it is a sign that Congress may have finally broken their fever of "short-sighted, crisis-driven, partisan decision-making."

That pretty picture of a Congress that has come together at long last was undercut by the fact that not a single Republican accepted the President's invitation to the signing ceremony, including the GOP duo who were among the four principal negotiators, House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Sen. Thad Cochran (D-Miss), Ranking Member on the Senate Agriculture Committee.   

A spokesman for Lucas said he had previous commitments in his home state.

Press Secretary Jay Carney announced the GOP snub aboard Air Force One as the President was flying to the festivities, perhaps to show that Mr. Obama is really making an effort to reach across the aisle, something his many critics say he does too infrequently.  

About fifty lawmakers from both parties were invited, Carney said.

"Everyone invited has to speak for himself or herself about their decision to attend or not attend," Carney said. "Look, this was a bipartisan effort and everyone involved in it deserves credit. The President is happy to share credit for that."

Just a handful of devoted Democrats were with the President aboard Air Force One as he arrived at the snow-packed Michigan airport, including Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich), the lead negotiator for the bill.  She is an alumna of MSU, the nation's oldest land-grant institution, and East Lansing is her home. 

"I could not be prouder of your own Debbie Stabenow, who has done just extraordinary work," the President said to an explosion of cheers.  


Then he name checked the missing Republican ag leaders: Stabenow "worked with Republican Senator Thad Cochran, who I think was very constructive in this process," President Obama said.  "We had Representatives Frank Lucas, a Republican, working with Collin Peterson, a Democrat."  

The Ranking Member on House Ag, Peterson, serving from Minnesota since 1991, is an original Blue Dog Democrat, a farmer representing his state's largest rural district.   Over the years of the endless legislative process he had issued terse public statements that barely concealed his despair and exasperation as the measure repeatedly imploded.

The President saluted Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who watched from the side of the stage, for his "terrific contribution."  A former two-term Governor from Iowa with no agriculture experience to speak of when the President appointed him to his Cabinet in 2009, Vilsack has let it be known that he was crucial to constructing the deal that led to the bill.

Also joining the President was Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), who spearheaded the battle last year in the House to try to preserve the Food Stamps program, after Republicans in an earlier failed version of the bill proposed a $39.9 billion cut in funding.  

Nutrition spending is the bulk of the new bill--some 79.9%.  The previous combat over the title was so bloody that the legislation was ultimately separated into two parts, in a move that had never happened before during decades of Farm Bill re-authorizations.  And then everything went up in flames anyway.

As lawmakers huddled to try cobble together yet another version of workable legislation, the President's top advisors--including Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy Sam Kass--spent the 2013 holiday season rebuking the GOP for the proposed cut to what is officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  

Kass and other officials publicly declared that slashing nutrition funding was "unpatriotic" as the White House took to social media to incite public outrage over the prospect of letting fellow citizens go hungry.  The Thanksgiving element of this campaign reminded Americans that while they were stuffing themselves with turkey and fixins', their neighbors were standing in line at food banks. 
 
The bill the President signed slashes SNAP by $8 billion over ten years, which translates to a decrease in funding of roughly $800 million a year, or about 1%.  About 47.5 million Americans received SNAP benefits each month on average during 2013.

The new law also changes eligibility for recipients, just one of the efforts to eliminate what is broadly referred to by lawmakers and the Department of Agriculture as "waste, fraud and abuse."

President Obama--who has been dubbed "The Food Stamp President" by critics thanks to SNAP enrollment ballooning to record levels during his time in office--defended the program, saying it helps ensure "America’s children don’t go hungry."  

"A large majority of SNAP recipients are children, or the elderly, or Americans with disabilities," President Obama said.  "A lot of others are hardworking Americans who need just a little help feeding their families while they look for a job or they’re trying to find a better one." 


He was again interrupted with cheers when he said that "in 2012, the SNAP program kept nearly 5 million people--including more than 2 million children--out of poverty."

He also got plenty of cheers when he pointed to the bill's support for local and regional food systems.

"It  supports local food by investing in things like farmers markets and organic agriculture--which is making my wife very happy," President Obama said.  "And when Michelle is happy, I don't know about everybody being happy, but I know I'm happy."

There's support in the bill for younger and beginning farmers, and veteran farmers: America's farmers are on the whole older and retiring, with an average age of 62.  The President was introduced by the youngish Michigan farmer Ben LaCross, who grows cherries, apples, and plums in Leelanau County, and is on the board of directors for the Michigan Farm Bureau. 

The bill gives "smaller producers, local producers, folks like Ben, the opportunity to sell more of their products directly, without a bunch of processing and distributors and middlemen that make it harder for them to achieve," President Obama said.

"And it means that people are going to have healthier diets, which is, in turn, going to reduce incidents of childhood obesity and keep us healthier, which saves us all money."

That's the operating White House theory, at any rate.  The Obama Administration hasn't yet figured out how to make unhealthy food less available or less attractive--there will be no federal soda tax--and has pinned a large part of its obesity policy to the idea that simply making healthier food more accessible and more affordable will get Americans to eat more of it, thus ending the nation's obesity pandemic. 

The problem is compounded by the fact that 1 in 7 Americans is a SNAP recipient, and beneficiaries are allowed to use their Food Stamps to purchase what can only be called junk food:  Soda, chips, cake, candy, cookies, and ice cream, among other obesogenic delights. 
 
Perhaps the biggest personal win for the President in the legislation is the end of crop subsidy payments to farmers.  During his first run for national office, he pledged to eliminate these, and it has essentially come to pass.  

Way back in 2009, the mere suggestion of scotching the direct payment program caused outrage and screaming from lawmakers as well as interested landholders.  Vilsack was all but pitchforked after he trotted out the idea during his very first speech as Agriculture Secretary, when he addressed Georgia farmers.

But with the deficit out of control, there was nothing for it but to stop doling out federal cash to people who don't actually farm.  The President called it "an important reform."

"This bill helps to clamp down on loopholes that allowed people to receive benefits year after year, whether they were planting crops or not," he said.  

"And it saves taxpayers hard-earned dollars by making sure that we only support farmers when disaster strikes or prices drop.  It's not just automatic."

On Friday morning, the White House announced that the President is establishing the "Made in Rural America" export and investment initiative.  Spearheaded by Vilsack's White House Rural Council in concert with other federal agencies, the project will include five "Made in Rural America" forums aimed at educating local governments and groups on how to promote export products.  USDA will train its employees to better advise producers on how to connect with foreign businesses, and there will be a conference on investing in rural America.

POTUS hears about biofuels
To check out the latest that the agriculture sector has to offer the rest of the world, ahead of signing the bill President Obama toured the Michigan Biotechnology Institute, a subsidiary of MSU.  Wearing protective plastic goggles, he got a demo on how agriculture residues, such as corn stover (leaves, husks, stalks) and wheat straw are converted into bio-based fuels, animal feed, and chemicals.  

"We’ve got great products here that need to be sold and we can do even more to sell around the world," he told the MSU crowd.

The President also met with students who are raising piglets on an organic farm, he said. 

"When I was in college, I lived in a pig sty," President Obama quipped to appreciative laughter. "But I didn't work in one.  So I’m impressed by that."
 

On the sidelines of his visit, President Obama lunched privately with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, the one non-ag element of the longest time he's devoted to rural America since he was campaigning for re-election in 2012.  

The President and the newly elected leader of the largest city in the US to ever declare bankruptcy discussed recovery efforts, the White House said.  They were joined by Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and Dan Graves, Senior Adviser at the National Economic Council, the President's point man for Detroit issues.  The White House issued a read-out of the closed-press lunch.

"I'm real proud of him," the President said of Duggan.

He ended his remarks by putting a little more pressure on Congress to join him as he works to make 2014 his "year of action"--and offered a subtle reminder that the mid-term elections are looming.

"In the weeks ahead, while Congress is deciding what’s next, I’m going to keep doing everything I can to strengthen the middle class, build ladders of opportunity in the middle class," President Obama said.  

"And I sure hope Congress will join me because I know that’s what you’re looking for out of your elected officials at every level." 

Congress will not be doing much to support the President's year of action: House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) this week announced that he is unlikely to take up comprehensive immigration reform legislation, a key item on Mr. Obama's legacy agenda.  It's also crucial to the agriculture sector.

POTUS and the lawmakers pose for a group photo after the bill signing
To sign the Act,  President Obama sat down at a table on the stage.  He ceremoniously inscribed the page authorizing the 959-page Farm Bill; the full text was beside him, encased in a purple silk box.  Vilsack, Stabenow, and Fudge stood behind him, as did the other Democrats who traveled with him:  Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn), Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich), and Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich).

The President wrote his name on the bill with ten different pens, ending the years-long agridrama with his scrolling autograph.  The bill authorizes programs through fiscal year 2018.

After shaking hands with the crowd, President Obama departed for the airport.  

By 5:05 PM the President was arriving on the White House's South Lawn aboard Marine One, moments after a red fox loped across the grounds despite the presence of a scrum of media gathered to watch the military helicopter land.

During the federal government shutdown last October, a fox had free run of the White House grounds.  The creature had taken up residence on the historic 18 acres, and during the 16-day crisis the mandatory furloughs left only a skeletal crew of groundskeepers at work.  They were not allowed to try to catch the new resident, being confined solely to the "minimal maintenance" work of watering and trash removal.

How ironic if it was the same fox on Friday, a haunting, wild symbol of the combative Congress.

The signed Farm Bill
The President has no public events scheduled for the weekend.  On Monday he will welcome President François Hollande of France to the White House to begin his State Visit. 

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*The transcript of the President's remarks

*The President's statement when the Farm Bill was approved. 
 
*Download the Agriculture Act 2014 {PDF, 959 pages}
 
*Download the Conference Report {PDF, 156 pages}

Greeting the crowd in the equestrian center
*USDA photos by Dan Kosling; White House video