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Farm Bill Reform Would End ‘Dishonest’ Subsidies, Says Midwestern Senator

On the same day that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue released a 42-point list of farm bill principles, Iowa Senator Charles Grassley said the 2018 bill should end the “dishonest” practice of crop subsidy payments to nonfarmers. Grassley prevailed in a Senate vote for tighter subsidy rules while the 2014 farm law was under debate, but the reforms were nearly erased in the final version of the law.

Grassley’s package would limit growers to $125,000 a year per person in payments and limit farms to one manager who also is eligible for subsidies. At present, there is no effective limit on payments per person, and the eligibility rules are nearly toothless. The Government Accountability Office said in 2013 that the USDA allowed payments to people who were identified as managers but who never set foot on the farm or were simply relatives of the farm owner. In an essay in the Daily Caller, Grassley said his reforms would save several hundred million dollars that could “provide assistance to those who truly need help.”

The Iowa Republican, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said, “Congress now has a chance to make up for that missed opportunity and to do right by the agriculture community and American taxpayers as talks on a new farm bill begin.” The final version of the 2014 bill deleted Grassley’s subsidy limits and instead told the USDA to look at tighter limits on nonfamily farms. The move exempted 96% of farms from any reform.

Meanwhile, the largest U.S. farm group said the guidelines released by Perdue would lead to a bill that helps farmers and ranchers through the slump in commodity prices that began in 2014. “We are pleased the secretary and his team have highlighted not just the importance of risk management on the farm but also rural development, research and development, trade, conservation, and nutrition,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Running four pages, Perdue’s list of principles supports a strong farm safety net that includes federally subsidized crop insurance, voluntary land stewardship, a reduced regulatory burden on new farm and food technology, an invigorated ag research program, rural economic development aided by high-speed internet service, and making “America’s forests work again.”

The USDA’s public nutrition programs should “support work as the pathway to self-sufficiency, well-being, and economic mobility for individuals and families,” said the list of principles. Most food stamp recipients are children, the disabled, or the elderly. Conservatives have focused on stricter limits on how long able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) can get food stamps. The administration has signaled that it might cut down on extended benefits for them.

“We hope the administration puts forward ideas to help workers earn better wages and find jobs that offer opportunity and upward mobility,” said Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank. “Proposals that take food away from those who are in between jobs or are stuck in a part-time job would be a mistake.”

ABAWDs are limited to 90 days of benefits in a three-year period unless they work at least 80 hours a month or spend equivalent time in workfare or job training. States can waive the 90-day limit in areas where the jobless rate exceeds 10% or when there are insufficient jobs.

A small-farm advocate, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said it was heartening that Perdue’s list touched on issues of interest to small, diversified, and organic farmers, such as working lands conservation, ag research, and assistance for beginning farmers, but lamented that others, like local and regional marketing, were neglected. “We are also concerned by the suggestion of potentially disastrous changes to nutrition assistance programs,” said the NSAC’s Greg Fogel. “In this document, USDA seems to imply a fundamental change in our food security programs that could not only challenge the Agency’s antihunger objectives but also could seriously risk the timely passage of a new farm bill.”

House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway said in The New Yorker that the biggest fight in the farm bill may be over food stamps rather than farm assistance. “I don’t want it to be just a Republican bill, and that’s going to be a challenge,” said Conaway.

To read Perdue’s farm bill and legislative principles, click here.

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