A blow to direct payments
By a vote of 85 to 14 early Friday morning, the Senate approved an amendment to a 2012 spending bill that ends direct payments to farmers with annual incomes exceeding $1 million.
Fiscal conservative Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) sponsored the amendment.
“It is the height of hypocrisy for politicians to complain about tax rates for millionaires while ignoring spending programs for millionaires,” Coburn said in a statement released by his office after the vote. “Before raising taxes on the rich Congress should first stop spending money on the rich. Sending direct payments to farmers who make more than $1 million a year is a de facto tax increase on every middle and low-income family who doesn’t receive this special benefits from Washington. I’m pleased the Senate accepted my amendment.”
Coburn has said that he doesn’t specifically oppose the direct payment program, but his amendment drew support from senators who do, including Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA).
“That gives you some idea of the overwhelming support in the United States Senate to do away with direct payments,” Harkin told Agriculture.com late Friday morning.
The spending bill includes appropriations for USDA in the 2012 federal fiscal year that began this month. It’s the last fiscal year of the current farm bill. Appropriations bills aren’t normally part of the process of writing new farm legislation, which is the responsibility of the Senate and House agriculture committees.
Leaders of those committees have opposed making farm bill changes through the appropriations process in the past and many of the votes against Coburn’s amendment came from Senate Ag Committee members, including the chairwoman, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), the ranking Republican on the committee.
But Harkin, who now chairs the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, is still a member of the Ag Committee that he headed when the 2008 Farm Bill was written. Another Democrat, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, also voted for Coburn’s amendment, even though he has proposed keeping a scaled down direct payment program.
When asked if members of the ag committees are still debating how to come up with cuts for the deficit trimming Super Committee, Harkin said, “That’s true.”
On Monday of this week both the House and Senate ag committees released a letter they sent to the Super Committee suggesting $23 billion in cuts to USDA spending. Out of that, about $15 billion would come from commodity programs and about $4 billion is being considered for cuts to conservation programs, with another $4 billion being cut from nutrition programs, according to Ag Committee member Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
Harkin said he doesn’t go along with cuts that large to conservation or nutrition.
“I’m not going to support it,” he said.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, the only major farm group still fighting to keep a scaled back direct payment program, has advocated making cuts to food stamps and conservation programs as well.
Harkin disagrees with that approach and argues that spending on food stamps and nutrition are needed more during a time of high unemployment and a time when farmers will have the highest income in decades.
“If we’re going to cut something out of people making good money, then we’re going to be taking money out of people who are making no money at all? That doesn’t make sense to me,” Harkin said.
Nor does it make sense to Harkin to cut conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program when more land is being put into crop production.
“We need to have even more emphasis on CSP, which is a working lands program,” he said.
Harkin also believes strict payment limits may be part of the next farm bill during a time of lean budgets.
“I think we should have meaningful payment limits,” he said. “I’ve always supported Senator Grassley on that….”