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Capitol Hill Lawmakers Reach Bipartisan Farm Bill


All that took was a two year delay. House and Senate negotiators last night reached a compromise on the Farm Bill. That legislation deals with agriculture, of course, and also governs the federal food stamp program, from which billions will be cut. Derek Wallbank of Bloomberg News has been covering this story. He's on the line. Welcome to the program.

DAVID WALLBANK: Thank you very much for having me.

INSKEEP: So what took Congress so long?

WALLBANK: Oh, you know, it's interesting. This is the sort of fight where you have a big partisan divide over the issue of the domestic safety net for food stamp funding. Republicans wanted to see big changes to that program, including divorcing it from the Farm Bill entirely, while Democrats really did not want to see any cuts at all, particularly after you had a rollback of benefits last year.

But you also had on the commodity side, a lot of farm groups trying to protect and preserve subsidies even as we were eliminating direct payments to farmers.

INSKEEP: OK. So two things to talk about there. First the food stamps. I understand this bill cuts $8 billion in food stamp spending over a decade. Sounds like a lot although it is a one percent cut in the overall program. How is that going to affect the average person or the average family depending on food stamps to help pay the bills?

WALLBANK: It depends. The way that it does it is it changes rules for something that's called the light/heat program. Basically, it gives you a little bit of extra benefit if you get assistance for home heating aid.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

WALLBANK: It's only in certain states and what it does is it changes the amount of money that the state has to give you. And in a very complicated way, if you qualify for this you're going to get a reduction in benefits. Somewhere around 800,000 people should be affected by this - not everybody, but the people who are will definitely notice it.

INSKEEP: Now, at the same time that the food stamp program is being cut you're saying that there was a fight over agriculture subsidies including for big agriculture businesses. Who were the winners and losers?

WALLBANK: Well, I think most of the people who have a stake in the Farm Bill are pretty happy with it. We saw a flood of commodity groups coming out after the deal was announced to say yes, we're for it. Let's go. The Farm Bureau was quick to come out. The Soy Bean Association was quick to come out. And really, at the end of the day this is about getting rid of those direct payments that were checks cut to farmers in one of the great symbols of things the government probably ought not do.

Everyone realized that was politically untenable, we couldn't do that anymore, that there wasn't the support to continue it. And so really, at the end of the day you came up with a program that people who grow peanuts to people who grow wheat pretty much like. And those big farm groups that were worried about losing direct checks, they seem to have come out OK.

INSKEEP: What's the new system?

WALLBANK: Well, the new system is more of an insurance-based safety net. There are some target prices set up in there, but mainly it's an insurance-based system that's designed to, in bad years, help farmers get through them. And it's a much more complex safety net. It's harder to describe than just checks that are going out.

And that's honestly part of the complication. That's part of why it took so long, is because it's very hard to design a program that works for people growing peanuts in Georgia just as well as it works for people growing corn in Minnesota.

INSKEEP: Is the United States still going to be subsidizing people who grow those goods in years when they need it?

WALLBANK: They are absolutely going to be subsidizing those in years when they need it. There is a concern among some that it will be over-subsidizing when they don't need it. And to the extent of how generous or not, it kind of depends who you talk to.

INSKEEP: Derek Wallbank of Bloomberg News. Thanks very much.

WALLBANK: You're very welcome.


INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.