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CHIMPing away at conservation

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), a member of two powerful ag committees, told 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.

Harkin said he voted for the appropriations bill, too, even though he doesn’t like the cuts to some of his favorite programs.

“Overall, given the budget constraints we have, it’s not all that bad,” he told

Harkin said he thinks he’ll have support from other senators for making cuts to direct payments.

“I think that would be a good debate to have,”  he said.

Harkin said he’ll also be making the case for cutting direct payments on his own to the 12-member “super committee” that is charged with coming up with at least $1.2 trillion in federal budget cuts over 10 years. The committee has a November 23 deadline and Congress has until mid-October to offer suggestions.

The House has already passed an agricultural appropriations bill that makes even bigger cuts to farm bill mandatory spending, according to an analysis by Hoefner, a former congressional staffer.  The House bill would trim $1.16 billion from the $6.1 billion that the Farm Bill’s  mandatory conservation programs would otherwise cost in 2012, according to the congressional budget office (CBO). At some point, the differences between the House and Senate bills will have to be reconciled.

The House voted to cut the Conservation Reserve Program, the farm bill’s biggest conservation program, by trimming $23 million from its $2 billion farm bill baseline. The Senate Appropriations Committee didn’t cut the CRP.

The second biggest conservation program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, was cut $350 million by both the House and the Senate committee. That takes EQIP spending down from $1.75 billion to $1.4 billion.

According to Harkin’s staff,  here is how spending would be limited for other conservation programs:

  • Conservation Stewardship Program:  Not more than $809 million can be spent; the August CBO estimate for 2012 mandatory farm bill spending is $844 million, so it’s a cut of $35 million.
  • Wetlands Reserve Program:  Not more than 185,800 acres may be enrolled.  CBO estimated that under the farm bill 250,000 acres would be enrolled at a cost of $617 million.  Limiting the acres enrolled to 185,800 would cut the cost to an estimated $437 million, thus cutting $180 million from WRP’s mandatory funding dedicated in the farm bill.
  • Farm and Ranchland Protection Program:  Not more than $150 million is allowed, compared to $200 million dedicated in the farm bill, so it’s a cut of $50 million.
  • Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP):  Not more than $50 million is allowed, compared to $85 million dedicated in the farm bill, so it’s a cut of $35 million.
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