The massive new farm bill survived a test vote in the Senate on Monday, but is coming under heavy attack from critics who say it front-loads spending but withholds most of its promised cuts to agriculture programs and farmer payments until five years from now — after the law would expire.
The farm bill is expected to reduce the deficit by $16.6 billion over 10 years compared to current farm policy, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But just $5.3 billion of those savings happen by 2018, when the new bill will expire. Meanwhile, more than half of the new spending comes in those first five years, meaning the new policy actually results in a higher deficit during its five-year life span.
"The CBO projections are 10-year projections," said Daren Bakst, research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "But farm bill doesn't last 10 years, it lasts five years. It's very possible that those savings will never be realized."
Despite the critics, the bill survived a filibuster effort Monday night on a bipartisan 72-22 vote. Senators have a final vote scheduled for Tuesday, which will send the bill to President Obama's desk for signature. The House passed the bill last week on a 251-166 vote.
Backers said the bill makes major reforms to longstanding U.S. farm programs, including ending the old subsidy program that paid farmers even if they didn't plant crops, and replacing that system with an insurance program that will compensate farmers when prices drop.
The bill also includes provisions to eliminate what critics called a loophole some states had used to boost their residents' eligibility for food stamps, which is also funded in the farm bill.
"This is not your father's farm bill," Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat, said Monday. "Tomorrow, the Senate can enact major reforms to farm programs, end outdated and unnecessary subsidies and support the transition the American people are already making to a healthier food system."
But a number of advocacy groups said Congress could have gone further.
Craig Cox, senior vice president at the Environmental Working Group, said farmers will get increased subsidies in the short term, and won't see cuts until years down the road.
"If you're concerned about budget discipline, that is the wrong way to go," Mr. Cox said. "It's been a traditional budget game that [agriculture] committees have played."
Front-loading new spending while putting off painful cuts has become routine in Congress. Last month's government-wide budget deal boosted spending in 2014 and 2015 while promising deeper cuts later. And a Democratic proposal to extend current emergency unemployment benefits while instituting cuts in 2024 — outside of the 10-year window CBO uses to evaluate bills.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, complained that the farm bill will increase the deficit by $2.1 billion in 2014, threatening to bust the budget limits agreed to in the compromise budget deal less than two months ago.
"The farm bill is now in a situation where it can increase spending in the first fiscal year and promise that it will recoup the money later on," Mr. Sessions said Monday on the Senate floor.
But Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the new bill probably locks in those savings in later years, meaning the deficit reduction will likely happen even though the farm bill expires in 2018.
He said if lawmakers were to try to raise spending on the next farm bill, that would show up in CBO's next scorecard, and that would have to be accounted for with cuts or tax increases elsewhere.
"The statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act would say you have to pay for that increase," he said.
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