Senate passes road bill, stops crop insurance cut
December 4, 2015
The Senate late Thursday followed the House in passing the surface transportation bill, which now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The bill will fund work on the nation's highways for the next five years. The passage will also stop Congress from making the $3 billion cut to the crop insurance program that was in the budget agreement, as well as reauthorize the Export-Import Bank for four years.
The bill, H.R. 22, has been known as the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act, but it was retitled the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act to reflect that it is the first highway reauthorization bill passed in years. It authorizes $305 billion in spending.
The Senate vote was 83 to 16, but it came after Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., raised a point of order against the crop insurance provision. But the Senate voted against the point of order by a vote of 75 to 22. Flake and Shaheen said it was improper to put the reversal of the crop insurance provision in the transportation bill.
The House approved the bill by a vote of 359 to 65 earlier in the day.
The highway provisions are important to rural America, but the crop insurance provision has gotten the most attention. Small businesses throughout rural America also fought for the extension of the Ex-Im Bank, which conservatives had opposed.
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The Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau (CIRB), the National Crop Insurance Services (NCIS), and American Association of Crop Insurers (AACI) said in a news release, "We are pleased that Congress upheld its promises to America's farmers by making crop insurance whole again. We join with stakeholders across the agricultural community in thanking those who fought to unwind both the harmful policy and cuts that were included in the budget agreement. We appreciate all who stood up for crop insurance's effective public-private partnership that ensures timely service for farmers after times of disaster."
The release continued, "This action shows that crop insurance is truly the centerpiece of agricultural risk management. America's crop insurers remain committed to providing superior service to our customers, America's farmers, who we all rely on for food, fuel, feed, and fiber."
The American Soybean Association said that providing funding certainty for road and bridge construction and maintenance was a priority as well as reversing the crop insurance cut.
"The cut to crop insurance was a deal-breaker for soybean farmers, and we're very relieved to see these cuts reversed," said Wade Cowan, ASA's president and a farmer from Brownfield, Texas. "Soybean farmers across the country rely on crop insurance in times of extreme weather to ensure they can stay in business to farm in the coming year. An ill-advised $3 billion in cuts would have severely hobbled the program, and we're happy to see them reversed."
Cowan noted that the association would be on the lookout for similar attacks when the omnibus appropriations bill comes up in the next few weeks.
"ASA will continue our opposition to any attempt to cut the farm bill programs in the budgeting process," he said. "These programs seem to be low-hanging fruit to lawmakers who don't understand how important they are to the nation's food producers, and we will continue to fight to make sure they stay whole."
National Association of Wheat Growers President Brett Blankenship, a wheat grower from Washtucna, Wash., said, "Last night's vote was a huge victory for our agricultural producers and consumers everywhere. The draconian cuts included as part of the budget agreement, which were reversed last night, would have increased the cost of delivering the program, reduced options for producers, and ultimately made premiums more expensive."
The Ex-Im Bank, which has not been allowed to make new loans to finance American exports since June, should be back in business within days, Ex-Im Chairman Fred Hochberg told the President's Export Council on Thursday, according to a report in Washington Trade Daily. But WTD also noted that Ex-Im's ability to approve new transactions will be limited because there are not enough board members for a quorum, which means the bank can only approve transactions under $10 million. The two Republicans selected by Obama to sit on the board specifically asked that their nominations not be formally submitted until the bank had been reauthorized, WTD said.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., praised the action and noted that she had been fighting to reauthorize the bank.
"This vote was an important step to show that Congress can work together across the aisle to stand up for American businesses and workers – including in Fargo, Garrison, and throughout North Dakota – and give them the certainty they need to create, invent, and thrive," Heitkamp said in a news release.
The Exporters For Ex-Im Coalition said, "Today's vote is a significant victory for U.S. manufacturing. Hundreds of exporters and thousands of workers nationwide spoke out about the importance of the Export-Import Bank in their local economy, and Congress listened. By reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank, members of Congress are ensuring that manufacturers can ship their products overseas and keep and hire more people in the U.S."
The National Grain and Feed Association said the transportation provisions "will keep U.S. agriculture competitive as it serves domestic and international markets" and noted that, with the American Farm Bureau Federation, NGFA had led the agricultural and farm group lobbying efforts for the bill.
NGFA said that "while the bill does not include NGFA's priority provision – one that would have allowed trucks with six axles to transport up to 91,000 pounds on interstate highways – it does include the following:
▪ A national highway freight policy with the express goal of strengthening U.S. economic competiveness.
▪ A national multimodal freight network that will focus federal policy on the most strategic freight assets and assist in directing resources to improve multimodal freight network performance.
▪ Minimum Financial Responsibility: Requires the Department of Transportation to consider prior to issuing a rule the potential impacts of raising the minimum financial responsibility above $750,000 on the motor carrier industry, safety, etc.
▪ Port performance freight statistics program.
▪ Hours-of-Service Rule for Livestock and Poultry: Permanently removes the 30-minute break after eight hours-of-service requirement, which will avoid unnecessary discomfort for livestock and poultry during transport."
–The Hagstrom Report