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A triumphant day for Sen. Debbie Stabenow

Jack Lessenberry

Today may just be the most triumphant day of Debbie Stabenow’s 13-year career in the U.S. Senate.

President Barack Obama flew to East Lansing this morning to sign the farm bill, which will guide federal agricultural policy over the next decade. The bill finally made it through Congress this week, after being stalled for two years by partisan battles.

Afterward, both parties gave Stabenow, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, credit for coming up with a formula to break the logjam. But there was plenty of criticism too, mainly from Democrats, for $8 billion in cuts the bill made to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

This is what we used to know as food stamps. Stabenow was bitterly denounced for a “betrayal of the disadvantaged” by one long-time supporter, and in fact, a majority of House Democrats voted against this bill. Yesterday, I talked with Stabenow at length about this.

She told me many of the press accounts were highly misleading. “I drew a line in the sand and made it clear there wouldn’t be any farm bill if (qualified) people were deprived of food assistance,” she said, reminding me that an early GOP version of the farm bill would have entirely ended nutrition assistance.

But she added,

“I was willing to tackle the legitimate issue of fraud and misuse. In fact,” she said, “those who need help should be at the head of the line supporting efforts to stop it.”

Some of this took the form of closing loopholes. One of the more embarrassing ones had allowed people who won huge sums in the lottery to continue to get food assistance.

But she said most of the changes in eligibility came from eliminating a program where people got credit for having to pay to heat their homes – and therefore became eligible for food assistance – who do not, in fact, have a utility bill at all.

A majority of those are in New York, Stabenow said. But the nutrition program wasn’t the biggest challenge she faced in getting this bill through. It was that agriculture is so diverse in this country. In some regions, especially the South, millionaire farmers were being paid large subsidies by the government whether they grew any crops or not. Now, that will end.

Instead, farmers will get help with crop insurance, and only be eligible for payments when they take a loss. That will be especially helpful in Michigan, where farms tend to be smaller and crops more diverse. Some of our farmers will be eligible for crop insurance who weren’t before, she said, adding with a laugh, “This bill has Michigan written on every page.”

Stabenow said President Obama was coming here to sign it because she asked him to. “I said, Mr. President, you shouldn’t sign this farm bill in Washington, you should come to the nation’s pioneer land-grant university to do so.” That just happened to be Michigan State, her alma mater, and he agreed.

My guess is that nobody would blame Stabenow if she took the rest of the weekend off. But I’d also guess she won’t. After all, a major mental health bill she sponsored will soon reach the Senate floor.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at Michigan Radio-dot-org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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