Senate Committee Debates Farm Bill

A Senate committee takes up the farm bill. They are finding it difficult to rein in the automatic payments that go to commodity crop farmers. Critics say the bill continues to the benefit of a small number of big farms.

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Farmers who are not worried about drought may be thinking about the future of their support from the government.

Just as communist nations once had five-year plans for agriculture, the U.S. government has a five-year farm bill. Among other things, it sets payments to farmers, and that measure is up for a renewal, which is prompting critics to say it brings the same old subsidies to people who do not deserve them.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Ken Cook sits in front of a big computer screen in the Washington, D.C. office of the non-profit Environmental Working Group, which he heads. In the computer is a database of the recipients of taxpayer funded farm subsidies. Their addresses might surprise you.

Mr. KEN COOK (President, Environmental Working Group): Well, let's take a look at New York City. And all you need to do is either click on the map or type in the zip code and zoom in. And before you know it, you're seeing, on Google Maps, this detailed information about farm subsidy beneficiaries in the middle of New York City, right along Central Park, on both sides.

NAYLOR: Somebody's rooftop garden?

Mr. COOK: You might well wonder. You know, I spent a fair amount of time in New York, and I've never seen a combine during harvest season or a planter in the spring.

NAYLOR: And you could click on Los Angeles or Miami or any other large city, and the results would be the same: folks who might not know a furrow if they fell in one but who inherited or invested in property that was once farmed still get farm payments from the government.

Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, says it's appalling.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): I think it's a black eye for all of us in agriculture when payments are going out to dead farmers, people who don't even farm, and when mega payments go out to people who aren't even farming the land, yet because they own the land they're getting money. And it's just not right.

NAYLOR: There is a lot that's not right with current farm legislation, say its critics. Just about a third of all U.S. farmers get subsidies - those who grow commodity crops like corn, soy beans, rice and cotton. And of them, just a fraction - 10 percent - get most of the money. And those subsidies, what's been dubbed red state welfare, continue to flow, even though American farmers are prospering as never before.

Ken Cook.

Mr. COOK: Record farm income is projected over $87 billion, and we'll still be under the current law if we extend it. If we have a status quo bill, we'll be giving $5 billion a year in automatic subsidies to those same farmers.

NAYLOR: Harkin is trying to reduce those automatic payments. The bill he's bringing up today would take some of the money from direct payments and put it into conservation and rural development. But even a powerful committee chairman with lots of seniority in Congress can only do so much.

Sen. HARKIN: You got to remember, farm bills don't make sharp turns. I'm just trying to bend the rails a little bit and get it moving a little bit in a different direction.

NAYLOR: Harkin is not alone in his efforts to reform the subsidy system. Iowa's other senator, Republican Charles Grassley, a farmer himself, wants to cap the amount of payments a farmer can receive at $250,000. Grassley says it's crucial to maintain support from non-farm states for the program.

Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): It's pretty hard for me to explain somebody in New York that 10 percent of the biggest farmers ought to get 72 percent of the benefits that New Yorkers are paying into the farm program and subsidizing big farmers to get bigger.

NAYLOR: But Grassley's effort as well as other attempts to reduce farm subsidies will be fought by many farm state senators with the backing of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Tara Smith is director of Congressional Relations for the farm bureau, which calls itself the voice of agriculture. She says even though times are good for farmers now, they may not last.

Ms. TARA SMITH (American Farm Bureau Federation): This is a five-year bill. Prices are great now, but we have all seen market prices collapse. We have - we know that markets are cyclical. Those prices are going to come down eventually, and we need to have a plan in place to take care of U.S. farmers when that happens.

NAYLOR: The House has already passed its own farm bill, largely preserving the status quo and leaving critics little hope of significant change until the next farm bill five years from now.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

INSKEEP: The farm bill affects everything from what we eat to how we trade with other nations. And you can read about what this bill does and why it's controversial at npr.org.

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Why You Should Care About the Farm Bill

A farmer harvests a corn crop

The farm bill affects everything from what we eat to how we trade with other nations. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Olson/Getty Images

With its less-than-scintillating name, the farm bill is not the type of legislation that makes Americans sit up and take notice. But perhaps it should.

First enacted during the Great Depression, the bill is a sweeping spending plan for most things agricultural. It authorizes subsidies to farmers and food stamps for the poor, and affects everything from what we eat to how we trade with other nations.

The bill comes up for reauthorization every five years, although it sometimes takes Congress an extra year or two to finish its work. The last time, in 2002, lawmakers were preoccupied with the newly begun war in Afghanistan, and the looming war in Iraq; the bill garnered little attention outside the so-called farm states.

This time around, sparks are already flying.

In late July, the House passed its reauthorized version of the bill — a massive, $290 billion spending plan that would keep existing agricultural subsidies in place through 2012, while also adding new ones: for growers of specialty crops, the settlement of discrimination suits, and an expansion of the food stamp program, among other things.

The politics surrounding the farm bill are complicated and often do not follow party lines. Regional interests dominate, as legislators from Louisiana defend subsidies for rice farmers, while those from low-income districts support funding for food stamps. This year, however, partisan controversy broke out over how the House bill would pay for these programs: Democrats proposed eliminating a tax loophole that affects how foreign companies with U.S. subsidiaries report profits. That provoked Republican opposition. The measure still passed, but on a 231-191, mostly party-line vote. Nineteen Republicans voted with the majority; 14 Democrats voted against.

The Senate Agriculture Committee takes up its version of the bill this week, and it is expected to take a somewhat different tack. Agriculture Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) has advocated a "fairer" subsidy system, with stricter limits on subsidies for the largest farms and more "green" payments to farmers who farm in ways that benefit the environment.

Critics of the farm bill have called on the Senate to slash traditional crop subsidies by nearly one-third, while spending more on biofuels and food stamps. And Senate Republicans have also raised objects about eliminating the tax loophole. White House officials even threatened a veto, calling the House version of the bill fiscally irresponsible and too generous to farmers.

Here is a look at the farm bill's key elements and the controversies involved in them.


Crop Subsidies

In a Nutshell: The farm bill includes many programs that hand out payments to farmers. Some payments are triggered by falling farm prices; others are simply based on the amount of land that a farmer owns. The House measure includes subsidies for 25 crops. Some of the largest payments go to growers of corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton. There also are high tariffs to protect domestic sugar producers. In recent years, farmers have received anywhere from $10 billion to $20 billion each year.

Supporters Say: Subsidies are necessary to ensure that American farmers can survive bad years and compete with farmers in other countries.

Critics Contend: Subsidies are an example of unnecessary pork-barrel spending that's driven by the political influence of the farm lobby. Critics also say they distort the farm economy, promoting the growing of some crops, such as corn and rice, over others that receive very little government support, such as vegetables or cattle grazing.


Qualifying for Payments

In a Nutshell: Anyone who owns land can qualify for subsidies, whether they are farming the land themselves or renting it to others. Because many commodity payments are based on the amount of land planted, or the size of the expected harvest, large farms get most of these payments. Under the current farm bill, farmers earning more than $2.5 million a year aren't eligible for payments, but that limit is often circumvented. Farmers can set themselves up as a corporation, for instance, which is not subject to those limits. Under the House version of the bill, farmers who earn more than $1 million a year will not be able to receive subsidies. More importantly, corporations will be required to designate living, breathing people as the beneficiaries of these payments.

Supporters Say: The House bill represents a fair compromise. Setting a lower limit, they argue, would be unfair to farmers who sometimes make very large profits in one year, only to lose large amounts the following year.

Critics Contend: The House-passed farm bill is a continuing subsidy to big agricultural operations that don't need it. The White House, for instance, had proposed restricting subsidies to farmers earning less than $200,000 a year.


Conservation Programs

In a Nutshell: These programs encourage and assist farmers and ranchers to protect vulnerable land, such as wetlands, stream banks and native grasslands. Farmers can receive payments for taking cropland out of production in order to preserve soil, protect streams and provide habitat for wildlife. They can also receive payments for farming in ways that benefit the environment. These payments amount to almost $3 billion each year, and the House bill proposes to increase them modestly.

Supporters Say: Environmentalists argue that conservation payments are the best kind of farm subsidy, because they encourage farmers, who control vast sections of the country's land and water, to handle it as a public resource. Many farmers are happy to take measures to protect the nation's waterways and to restore wildlife habitat, as long as they can be paid to do it.

Critics Contend: Some of these programs aren't well targeted, and don't deliver as many benefits as hoped. Some farmers don't like the idea of taking land out of production, fearing it can hurt the broader rural economy because it cuts demand for fertilizer and other farm supplies.


Food Stamps and Nutritional Programs

In a Nutshell: This program accounts for most of the money in the farm bill. It provides financial assistance for low-income families to purchase food. The House version renames the program the "Secure Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program." It would eliminate paper stamps in favor of an electronic transfer system.

Supporters Say: The switch to electronic processing will save the program from counterfeiting and fraud. The House bill also raises the minimum benefit for recipients and increases funding for the program that provides fresh fruits and vegetables to schools. The House bill pays for this — and other spending increases in the bill — by eliminating a tax loophole that allows U.S. subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies to avoid paying some taxes by shifting their profits to other countries.

Critics Contend: The bill is too costly; what's more, eliminating the tax loophole amounts to one of the largest tax increases in history.


International Food Aid

In a Nutshell: The bill authorizes the Food for Peace program, under which the government buys food commodities in the U.S., turns them over to private aid organizations such as Catholic Relief Services, and pays to ship the food to countries where it's needed. The U.S. spends nearly $1 billion each year on Food for Peace.

Supporters Say: The program is a humanitarian success story. The U.S. is the world's largest donor of food, and Food for Peace shipments have kept people from starving. That's because of political support from farmers, shippers and aid organizations, all of whom benefit.

Critics Contend: The program wastes much of its money. Under current rules, food must be bought in the U.S. and shipped abroad, even though studies show that, in many cases, the food would be cheaper and get to its destination much more quickly if the U.S. bought it closer to where it's needed. In some cases, private aid groups sell the food in foreign markets to raise cash. Critics say that's terribly inefficient, compared with simply giving aid organizations cash in the first place.

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