Bush Administration Denounces House Farm Bill

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, October 4, 2001 (ENS) - The White House has thrown its considerable weight behind a proposal to reduce massive, decades old subsidies for crops like wheat and corn. The move by the Bush administration could give a boost to proposals that would shift billions of dollars away from farm subsidies and into conservation programs.

farm

Large corn growers receive a large percentage of federal agricultural subsidies (Photo by Tim McCabe, courtesy USDA)
In a Statement of Administration Policy sent to Congress by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in coordination with other federal agencies, the White House asked the House to delay action on the fiscal year 2002 agriculture bill (HR 2646).

"The Administration believes it is possible to craft a policy that is better for rural America, better for the environment, and better for expanding markets for our producers than HR 2646," the statement reads. "Hence, the Administration does not support HR 2646 and urges the House of Representatives to defer action on the bill."

Noting that the bill would increase federal spending on agricultural programs by more than $70 billion over the next 10 years, the White House cautions that "in the context of the current state of the nation, consideration of large new financial commitments that do not require immediate action are not timely."

In keeping with a recent White House sponsored report on the Bush administration's long term farm policy, the OMB statement calls for additional funds for farmland and environmental conservation, and reduced funding for large farm subsidies.

soybeans

Soybeans are one of the nation's most heavily subsidized crops (Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy ARS)
"As drafted, HR 2646 misses the opportunity to modernize the nation's farm programs through market oriented tools, innovative environmental programs, including extending benefits to working lands, and aid programs that are consistent with our trade agenda," the statement reads. "Over the past decade, the nation's farm sector has changed significantly due to new production and information technologies, globalization, industry consolidation, and environmental concerns. HR 2646 does not reflect these changes."

The OMB statement criticizes the House bill's emphasis on subsidies for large scale farms producing wheat, corn, sorghum, cotton and other staple crops. The bill would encourage overproduction of these crops, the statement charges, by boosting production based payments to farmers for crops grown at above market prices.

The White House also warned that the House bill fails to help the farmers who are most in need, continuing to direct almost half of all federal payments to just eight percent of all farms. More than half of all farmers now share in just 13 percent of the federal payments, and "HR 2646 would only increase this disparity," the OMB statement says.

That argument lends credence to House Democrats who have proposed shifting billions of dollars from farm subsidies into conservation programs.

wetlands

The Wetlands Reserve Program aids farmers who protect and preserve agricultural wetlands (Photo by Ron Nichols, courtesy USDA)
The current bill would devote more than $16 billion over the next decade to soil, water and wildlife programs - an 80 percent increase in baseline funding. But large farms would still receive about $50 billion in additional subsidies over the next 10 years.

Today, Representative Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican known for his strong pro-environmenta stance, offered an amendment to the bill that would shift $1.9 billion each year from commodity programs to conservation programs. The amendment - which is also backed by Wisconsin Democrat Ron Kind, Maryland Republican Wayne Gilchrest, and Michigan Democrat John Dingell - would boost funding for conservation programs dealing with land conservation, water quality, wildlife habitat, wetland restoration and grassland protection.

"Our amendment would significantly increase the conservation funding in the bill - while leaving total Farm Bill spending essentially unchanged," said Boehlert. "Our amendment will help more farmers in more states. Our amendment will encourage innovative environmental practices. Our amendment will keep lands in production. Our amendment will target assistance to smaller farmers who need it most."

Boehlert

Representative Sherwood Boehlert (Photo courtesy Office of the Representative)
Boehlert noted in his floor statement that the amendment is supported by a wide range of groups, including Ducks Unlimited, the Wildlife Management Institute, the Izaak Walton League, groups representing the nation's water and sewage authorities, the National League of Cities, and the League of Conservation Voters.

The Boehlert-Kind-Gilchrest-Dingell amendment would increase funding for programs like the Wetland Reserve Program and the Conservation Reserve Program, which pay farmers to set aside agricultural land as wetlands or wildlife habitat.

"These programs could, and should, help many more farmers work the land, care for the land and protect water quality," Boehlert said, citing the Bush administration's support for increased conservation spending.

Just after five o'clock today, the Boehlert-Kind-Gilchrest-Dingell was defeated in a narrow vote of 226 to 200.

"We are disappointed that the House passed up an opportunity to help farmers safeguard our wetlands, clean air and clean water," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "Instead, the House handed tax payers the bill for cleaning up the mess made by giant, corporate owned farms."

farmstead

The Farmland Protection Program offers money to protect farmland threatened by sprawl (Photo by Ron Nichols, courtesy USDA)
The Democratically controlled Senate, which will consider the farm bill after it is finalized by the House, could still include additional funds for conservation and slash funding for farm subsidies.

The Bush administration, in announcing its opposition to HR 2646, noted that Congress need not be in a rush to pass a new Agriculture bill. The current farm bill, the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act, expires in September 2002.

"We have one year to work together in a bipartisan manner to develop future farm policies before the current farm bill expires," said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. "We can do so in a thoughtful and deliberative manner."