Farm bill debate rolls on
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), told reporters today that when the conference committee drafting a final farm bill meets, it may vote on whether or not it will keep strong payment limits that are already in both the House and Senate versions of the bill. Grassley, a key architect of the Senate bill's strict limit of $250,000 per couple, opposes the move, since the same language was added to the House farm bill by an amendment from Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE). That, he says, means that it's a nonnegotiable item. The payment limit reform also eliminates a giant loophole, the way USDA currently allows nonfarm owners of farms to receive commodity program payments if they claim to be "actively engaged" in the farm's management.
Grassley conceded that his definition of a farmer and active management "are still some of the unresolved issues" that the conference committee may deal with when in meets. That could happen as early as Thursday of these week, although some ag group lobbyists doubt the committee will be ready to vote on a final bill until next week.
Grassley also argues that it's hypocritical for the committee to cut nutrition spending, by perhaps $8 billion over 10 years, while refusing to close loopholes that benefit the very largest farms. That, he said, would "take food out of the mouths of babes and continue to subsidize wealthy farmers that don't need the subsidies."
He said that weakening payment limits would also likely be opposed by Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who serves on the House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee.
In December, DeLaouro and two other House Democrats, Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, wrote House Speaker John Boehner to urge him to "keep farm bill loopholes closed."
"It is unconscionable that these conferees would try to reverse the reforms backed by a majority of their colleagues so as to continue the flow of millions of dollars, beyond what they are entitled to, to a relatively few mega farms," their letter said. "CBO [Congressional Budget Office] has estimated $170 million in savings if Congress reforms payment limits for commodity programs by placing a hard cap of $250,000 (for married couples) on the total amount of commodity payments that producers can receive."
Ferd Hoefner, who lobbies for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which supports Grassley's position, called any vote by the committee to strip out the strong payment limits risky.
"That is a very treacherous vote, even for opponents of reform," he told Agriculture.com in an email message. "It not only is anti-democratic, but it threatens to kill the entire farm bill on the floor."