Conference Committee Approves Massive Farm Subsidies

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, April 29, 2002 (ENS) - A House Senate conference committee has approved sweeping new farm legislation that promises billions of dollars in subsidies to some of the nation's largest crop growing conglomerates. The $100 billion bill, which was condemned as pork barrel legislation by some groups, won some praise for including about $17 billion in conservation programs.

On Friday, Senate leaders dropped a series of commodity and conservation reforms that they had previously approved, ending a six year Congressional battle to gradually reduce federal supports for U.S. farmers. The final bill negotiated by the House and Senate would increase subsidy payments to the largest producers of certain crops by almost $50 billion over the next 10 years.

Most of the extra funds will go to a handful of the biggest corn, cotton, rice and wheat farmers in just 10 states.

Combest

Representative Larry Combest, a Texas Republican, led the conference committee that produced the compromise farm bill. (Photo courtesy Office of the Representative)
"It was a long, hard fight to secure through conference the measures that farmers in our area so desperately needed in the final bill," said Representative Larry Combest, the Republican from Texas who chaired the House and Senate Farm Bill conference committee. "It is clearly a win for West Texas farmers and ranchers."

But some conservation groups said the bill represents a major loss for taxpayers and the environment.

"This bill sticks taxpayers with the tab for cleaning out the agribusiness outhouse," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). "If taxpayers think giant corporate hog farms stink, wait'll they get a whiff of this bill," he added.

Last November, EWG published an online database of millions of government records of farm subsidy payments, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. The database, which showed a wide disparity between the vast sums awarded to large corporate farms and absentee landowners, and the relatively paltry sum available to small family farms, raised a furor in Congress and prompted news stories and editorials in newspapers across the country.

In response, first the Senate and then the House added limits on subsidy payments to their farm bills. The revised bills redirected the savings to support farmland conservation programs and other measures that directly benefit smaller farmers.

But over the past two months of negotiations, Congress has gradually stripped those provisions from the farm legislation.

conference

Conferees discuss the Farm Bill during a hearing on April 20. House conferees are seated on the left side of the table, Senate conferees on the right. (Photo by Elizabeth Meyer, courtesy Office of Representative Larry Combest)
The Senate bill originally capped benefits payments to farmers or corporations at $275,000 a year. The conference committee version sets a cap of $360,000 a year, less than the current $460,000 limit. But the bill includes so many loopholes to that restriction that for many corporate farmers, subsidies could be almost unlimited.

The final version of the bill agreed to on Friday would triple federal subsidies to large hog and chicken farms, often referred to as factory farms.

"The list of lost reforms goes on and on. We haven't seen this many caves since they cancelled the Flintstones," said Cook. "The agendas of the two Agriculture Committee chairmen now seem indistinguishable."

Though the full House and Senate must still approve the conference committee's compromise, major changes are rarely made to bills that have already passed through the committee.

Harkin

Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, added a measure that pledges $2 billion over 10 years to reward farmers for improving their environmental practices. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Funding for conservation measures was reduced by nearly $3 billion from the original version of the Senate bill. However, the conference bill does include a record $17.1 billion for programs that reward farmers for protecting wetlands and water quality and conserving open space, measures that should help suburban areas to curb sprawling development.

The bill would replace the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act, legislation that sought to cut most federal agricultural subsidies and let market pressures set commodity prices. The measure was also supposed to help keep smaller farmers in business.

But during the late 1990s, agricultural lobbyists and Congress members from major farming states won billions of dollars in emergency bailouts as commodity prices plummeted amid growing supplies. Hundreds of small farms were bought up by large corporations that were propped up by subsidies.

In 2001, the federal government handed out the record sum of $20 billion to farmers, even as the number of full time commercial farmers continued to drop.

The Bush administration has said it supports ending the subsidy programs, denouncing an early House version of the bill that increased such payments. Last September, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman released a new, long term farm policy, emphasizing conservation and environmental protection and calling for reductions in federal subsidies for large farming operations.

Veneman

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman briefs reporters on the Bush administation's food and agricultural policy report in September 2001. (Photo courtesy USDA)
On Friday, Veneman released a statement saying that the administration is "encouraged" by the agreement between the House and Senate on the farm bill.

"Many objectionable provisions have been eliminated that we believe would not have been in the best interests of America's farmers and ranchers," Veneman said, adding that "while details still need to be completed, the agreement appears to include more market oriented and rebalanced loan rates as well as increased emphasis on conservation programs for working lands."

The Congressional Budget Office has yet to review the bill to determine whether it will fit into this year's projected budget.