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CHIMPing away at conservation

DANIEL LOOKER 09/08/2011 @ 3:38pm Business Editor

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), a member of two powerful ag committees, told Agriculture.com today that he’ll offer an amendment to cut direct payments as part of an effort to restore funding for conservation and rural development.

Harkin, the former chairman of the Agriculture Committee also sits on the agriculture subcommittee of the appropriations committee, which Wednesday voted to cut mandatory conservation programs by 12%, or $726 million,  in the 2012 fiscal year that starts in October.  It didn’t touch spending for direct payments.

Harkin has long been critical of direct payments, which go to any producer with a history of raising corn and other commodity program crops. They cost the Treasury about $5 billion a year. At a time when many farmers will have record or near record income, “the direct payment program makes no sense,” Harkin said Thursday.

“I hope to be part of an effort to CHIMP it,” he said.

What does that mean?

Well, in Washington, a CHIMP is not a monkey. It’s an acronym that stands for Change in Mandatory Program Spending.

Some parts of the farm bill are subject to annual appropriations in Congress -- research, for example. But the guts of the farm bill ¬– commodity programs like direct payments as well as nutrition programs like food stamps ¬¬– are mandatory.  So are many conservation programs.

In theory, these programs roll on from year to year, spending whatever is required. But every once in a while, in a fit of fiscal ferver, Congress may CHIMP a mandatory program to pay for something else. Often, the target of choice is the farm bill’s conservation title, which becomes the ATM machine for other ag or nutrition programs.

After watching the Senate Appropriations Committee CHIMP conservation programs Wednesday, Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition expressed his frustration by email:

“Shortchanging the agriculture appropriations allocation such that the funding of important items like feeding programs and food safety requires raiding farm bill direct spending to make up for shortfalls is the type of gaming and double dealing that gives Congress a bad name,” Hoefner said.   “Given the Senate Appropriations Committee action today, we hope the new budget Super Committee is paying attention: conservation programs have already been forced to scale back, so any further Farm Bill mandatory spending cuts should come from other titles.”

Hoefner said the $726 million in cuts to conservation programs comes on top of about $500 billion already cut from those programs in the current, 2011 fiscal year.

The ag appropriations committee leadership said they needed to cut the conservation programs to maintain some spending for food safety and food assistance to women, infants and children. Hoefner argues that if the money is needed for those things, other farm programs should take a cut as well.

That’s exactly what Harkin hopes to achieve, if the appropriations bill makes it to the floor of the Senate, where he can offer an amendment.

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