MARY CLARE JALONICK
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Farm bills passed by the Senate and a House committee last year would save far less money than previously thought, according to a new estimate released Friday.
A report from the Congressional Budget Office says a Senate-passed farm bill would save $1.3 billion annually, as opposed to the $2.3 billion per year in savings estimated last year. A bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee would save $2.7 billion a year instead of $3.5 billion.
While the amounts may seem small in comparison to the bills' $100 billion-a-year cost, the estimates are another roadblock for the embattled legislation and the farm-state lawmakers who have fruitlessly tried to convince House leadership to move forward on it.
One of the main arguments that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., made in favor of passage is that the bill would save taxpayers money over time.
The farm bill sets policy for farm subsidies, programs to protect environmentally-sensitive land, rural development and food stamps. Food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, make up roughly 80 percent of the legislation's cost.
The normally reliable farm-state coalition in Congress fell apart in 2012 as agricultural issues fell by the wayside in an election year. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack blamed the lack of a farm bill on rural America's declining population and lost clout. A booming agricultural economy also played a part as farmers weren't clamoring for a new bill or changing farm policy.
The farm bills passed by the Senate in June and by the House Agriculture Committee in July died at the end of last year's congressional session after Republican House leadership said they did not have the votes to pass it. The most recent farm law, passed in 2008, expired in September and was extended until September 2013 as part of the New Year's agreement on the so-called fiscal cliff. Farm-state leaders will have to write a new bill this year but have not yet started that process or said how they plan to go about it.
President Barack Obama has expressed general support for a new farm bill but it wasn't among his priorities in the State of the Union address.
The budget office said it lowered the estimates because savings in cuts to the food stamp program were lower than previously thought. The estimates also changed because of fluctuating crop prices.
The report did not alter estimates for savings generated from eliminating a controversial crop subsidy called direct payments. The subsidies, which are paid to landholders whether they farm or not, cost $5 billion a year. Those subsidies would have been eliminated in both bills, with some of the savings directed toward new subsidy programs. Senate Democrats have also proposed using that savings to avert across-the-board government cuts that kicked in Friday.
A spokesman for the Senate Agriculture Committee said it is not unusual for the Congressional Budget Office to adjust its calculations and that the revised estimates wouldn't derail efforts to pass a farm bill.
"The committee will be able to achieve the savings needed once it passes the new version of the farm bill," said Ben Becker, a spokesman for Stabenow.
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