Senate ready to pass the farm bill and all of its non-"improvements" this week

The Senate is voting on the massive, pork-filled, $1-trillion crapburger we glibly refer to as the “farm bill” this week, and they’re likely going to green-light the powerful legislative monstrosity as the dictates of agricultural and food-stamp policy for at least the next five years. The House has already approved the thing, which means the next stop after the Senate’s vote will be President Obama’s desk — an occasion on which, no doubt, he and many members of the media will surely tout the oh-so-wonderful ‘achievements’ of which Congress is capable if only they would come together in such a comfortingly bipartisan manner more often.

In recognition of this extra-special brand of “bipartisanship,” let’s go ahead and take a sampling of some of the legislation’s more delightful highlights. For instance, the proposed requirement that members of Congress disclose how much they personally are benefiting from the subsidies contained in the farm bill? …Well, actually, that got eliminated:

A provision requiring members of Congress and the administration to disclose what crop insurance subsidies they receive was quietly dropped from the farm bill that the House passed on Wednesday.

Section 11001 of the House-passed farm bill had a provision that “requires disclosure (by name) of the amount of crop insurance assistance received by Members of Congress, Cabinet Secretaries, and members of their immediate families.”

That provision was taken out in closed-door conference negotiations before the bill was released on Monday. The bill cleared the House in less than 72 hours, before many lawmakers had a chance to review it, and now heads to the Senate.

But that bizarrely duplicated catfish inspection program that basically serves as protectionism for domestic producers? Still there.

Also not included in the conference report is a provision that would have reversed the move of catfish inspections out of the Food and Drug Administration and into the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Cochran had made it his personal mission to eliminate that provision, which was contained in the House bill but not the Senate bill, on behalf of the many domestic catfish producers in his state.

After more than $30 million in startup expenses, the USDA has yet to inspect a single catfish — and has actually disbanded the four-member catfish inspection program it created, proponents of the change had argued.

Certain environmentalist groups, however, are none too pleased about the whole thing.

The Environmental Working Group said Friday that it is opposed to the $956 billion farm bill heading for a vote in the Senate on Monday.

The group said that while the bill makes some positive changes that will foster better environmental stewardship, it could significantly increase farm subsidies and encourage the kind of overproduction that has devastated natural areas in the past. …

“But those important provisions are outweighed by new, expanded and largely unlimited subsidies that do too much to help the largest and most successful farm operations at the expense of family farmers and the environment,” he added.

The group said that will traditional farm subsidies like direct payments are eliminated in the farm bill, new price and revenue-based supports will “almost certainly” cost more than expected. This could more than erase the $14.3 billion in cuts in the bill to subsidies.

While Big Agriculture is basically OK with it, because they’ll get new types of crop-insurance programs to more or less replace the elimination of direct payouts that lawmakers are hailing as a major source of savings. Big Corn and other biofuels producers, specifically, are pretty jazzed about the inclusion of biofuels supports that were removed from the original House version of the bill (because the Renewable Fuel Standard evidently just isn’t enough):

In Washington, the US Senate and House of Representatives, in a joint conference report, reached a compromise that cleared way for passage of a 5-year Farm Bill including $881 million in mandatory funding for Energy Title programs including eligibility to renewable chemicals under the Section 9003 Biorefinery Assistance Program and Section 9007 Biomass Research and Development Program, and support for new purpose grown energy crops. …

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program partners with hundreds of farmers across the country to develop sustainable new biofuels and other products from non-food crops, providing farmers with additional farm income and producing next-generation energy sources. The program currently supports more than 1,100 American growers in 188 counties across 12 states, who are converting 53,000 underutilized acres to energy crops. …

Among the Farm Bill policy changes was the expansion of the Biorefinery Assistance Program. With these amendments, companies seeking to produce high-performance renewable chemicals and biobased products in the US are eligible for loan guarantees to build manufacturing plants.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of fuel, here another extension of what is effectively another fuel tax:

Congress’ mammoth farm bill restores the imposition of an extra fee on home heating oil, hitting consumers in cold-weather states just as utility costs are spiking.

The fee — two-tenths of a cent on every gallon sold — was tacked on to the end of the 959-page bill, which is winding its way through Capitol Hill. The fee would last for nearly 20 years and would siphon the money to develop equipment that is cheaper, more efficient and safer, and to encourage consumers to update their equipment.

It’s just one of dozens of provisions tucked into the farm bill… Taxpayer groups say the bill could increase spending over the previous version and that it’s crammed with favors for individual lawmakers, such as rules legalizing industrial hemp. …

“The National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA) has long benefitted low- and middle-class families and small businesses throughout the Northeast and other cold weather states,” Rep. Leonard Lance, New Jersey Republican, said in a statement. “The program improves energy efficiency and lowers heating bills at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer.”

The bill prohibits oil companies from passing the fee on to consumers, but taxpayer advocates said that’s a sham and that the money has to come from consumers.

Not to mention, the dozens of weird little policy provisions you’d never begin to think of thrown in to help grab lawmakers’ support from various regions. Here are some of the ideas for which New York Democrat Chuck Schumer lobbied, like preserving the “wool trust fund.” Yes, that is a thing that exists.

“This gives U.S. wool and fabric manufacturers like Hickey Freeman in Rochester a partial tax refund of duties paid on imports to wool,” said Schumer, who lobbied Senate negotiators to keep the provision in the final agreement.

Imported woolen suits have low tariffs, but imported wool used to make suits in the U.S. have high tariffs.

“So it gave an advantage to foreign clothing makers, particularly in the fine woolen end,” Schumer said.

The Maple Tap Act, another Schumer initiative. It would create a $20 million annual grant program for research and expansion of the maple syrup industry nationally. Schumer predicted some of the research will be conducted by Cornell University.

“This program is going to unleash the untapped potential of New York maple because, after all, the sugar maple is our state tree,” Schumer said.

So… remind me again why the passing this trillion-dollar, gigantically opaque, special-interest-serving, 1,000-page onmnibus behemoth is ostensibly a cheering act of bipartisanship? To finish, go read Kim Strassel’s roundup of the farm bill’s multitudinous deficiencies over at the WSJ. It is pure poetry, and it hurts so good.