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Senate Ag Bill Slashes Sustainable Farming Programs While Maintaining Most Subsidies for Big Farms


Ag Committee votes for $3 billion in cuts to ag spending
Agriculture Online News
10/19/2005, 3:12 PM CDT
Three billion dollars over the next five years. That's the amount of the cut to the 2006 Agriculture Budget the Ag Committee is required to report under a new Congressional budget resolution approved today by an 11-9 vote. During a mark-up today, voting came down in favor of the plan, proposed by Ag Committee chairman Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA). $196 million in savings would be realized in fiscal year 2006.

The move, Chambliss said, was taken rather than leave the budget cuts to the choice of the Budget Committee or any Senator when the Senate considers the budget reconciliation package. Chambliss reportedly advised members of the Committee, "I assure you that those changes would most likely not be in the best interests of American agriculture."

The Agriculture Committee is one of eight Senate authorizing committees instructed under this year's budget resolution to reduce mandatory spending by $34.7 billion over the next five years.

Chambliss noted that the Committee-adopted plan achieves savings from farm commodity programs, but leaves the structure of the farm program created in the 2002 Farm Bill unchanged. Agricultural research programs remain intact, recognizing past funding levels. Also, in preparing for writing the 2007 Farm Bill, the Committee bill preserves budgetary resources, the "baseline," for the upcoming farm bill debate by generally suspending spending reductions in fiscal year 2011.

The Agriculture Committee mark-up also included a 2.5% ($1.296 billion) across-the-board cut to commodity programs, reductions in conservation spending of about $1 billion over five years, and the elimination of "Step 2" cotton subsidies. The cotton subsidies were ruled illegal in March by the World Trade Organization under a challenge brought by Brazil and supported by several African cotton-producing nations.

The reconciliation package did include an extension of the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program. However, the MILC payment is reduced by 27.5% from the previous program, which expired on September 30, according to the National Farmers Union.

During the committee meeting, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) said he would offer a commodity program payment limitation amendment on the floor of the Senate next month. Reductions in government spending from his $250,000 payment limit could play to the tune of $1.2 billion over five years, Grassley estimates.

Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, today noted, "Passage of $3 billion in budget cuts to the farm bill in Committee today is, thankfully, just act one of a multi-act play. "We applaud Senator Grassley for making clear this morning that act two will come when all Senators cast a vote in November on farm program payment limitation reform when the Budget Reconciliation bill goes to the floor of the Senate," he said.

Hoefner says passage of the Grassley-Dorgan payment limit reform amendment would "allow the Senate to restore many of the most egregious cuts contained in the farm and conservation sections of the reconciliation package." Chambliss reportedly opposes any payment limits. Main opposition to the limits comes from senators and commodity groups from the South.

CSP cuts dig deep

On Wednesday, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved deep cuts to conservation and commodity programs, including an $821 million cut to the Conservation Security Program (CSP). The CSP accounts for less that 1% of federal agriculture spending, but received 27% of the cuts in the total agriculture budget mark-up.

The budget cut approved today by the Senate Ag Committee is expected to shut down new CSP enrollments after this year, according to a release from the Land Stewardship Project.

"The budget resolution has dealt this Committee a difficult hand," remarked Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Ranking Member on the committee. He said it "continues - and in fact worsens - the misplaced priorities and misguided choices that have dominated federal fiscal policy for the past four-and-a-half years." In a scathing statement today, he said the cuts could actually worsen budget deficits.

"Americans are being told these cuts are necessary to bring the deficit down. With annual deficits and the national debt setting new records, fiscal responsibility would make a lot of sense. Yet the irony is that the cuts required of our Committee are contained in a budget resolution that will actually worsen budget deficits. That is because the resolution requires cutting $35 billion from programs that mostly help middle and lower income Americans, while it authorizes additional tax breaks of $70 billion - the lion's share of which will go to the very wealthiest Americans.

Bad timing for farm bill cuts, says Harkin
"It would be hard to find a worse time to break the commitments made in the
(2002) farm bill. Farm income is falling substantially because of higher production costs - including record energy prices - along with lower commodity prices," Harkin said.

"USDA information indicates that agriculture will suffer a nearly $5 billion negative impact this year just from energy-related costs. FAPRI estimated a 20% annual increase in the cost of production for all major crops, again mainly from higher energy-related costs. Cutting farm income protection can only worsen the hardship for farm families and the rural economy. "Nor is there any justification for cutting USDA support for agricultural conservation, yet conservation suffers a disproportionately large share of the cuts in this package," he said.

"Farmers and ranchers need conservation dollars so they can afford practices that improve the environment for all Americans. It is especially unfair that the Conservation Security Program (CSP) absorbs the vast majority of the damage to conservation funding, since CSP has already been cut by well over $3 billion in previous measures."

Earlier this week, many of the countrys hunting, fishing, environmental and conservation organizations urged senators Chambliss and Harkin to only make cuts to conservation programs that are proportional to their current size relative to other 2002 authorized Farm Bill programs.

"Conservations share of total mandatory spending under the jurisdiction of the committee is just 8%, yet the mark targets it for 35% of the total 5-year cut, rising to 41% over 10 years," Ferd Hoefner, Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, pointed out in a statement Tuesday.

A letter Hoefner's group and 22 others sent to Harkin and Chambliss, noted that unlike the commodity and several other titles of the farm bill, the conservation title has already been cut by nearly $4 billion since passage in 2002.

Budget reconciliation is expected to move forward in the Senate. All committees are to report back to the Budget Committee by Oct. 26. The November vote by the full Senate on Grassley's payment limitation plan "will determine whether the broad public interests in protecting natural resources and improving family farm viability and opportunity will take precedence over continuing to provide seven-figure checks from the taxpayers to mega-farms," Hoefner said.

The U.S. House of Representatives is not expected to consider budget reconciliation until later this fall. Once both chambers have finished mark-up, a conference committee will be convened.