Spending Votes: The Good, the Bad and the Missing

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Big changes often begin with a series of small steps.

Tuesday’s (May 31) votes by the House Appropriations Committee represented one such baby step. For the first time in years, the committee in charge of setting federal spending levels decided that government payments to absentee land owners and wealthy farm operations should be trimmed to reflect today’s budget realities. It signaled that extravagant or irrational farm subsidies might finally have to give way.

The last time Congress credibly challenged the subsidies that go to the largest and wealthiest industrial growers producers and rural land owners was the 1996 farm and food bill. At that time, the GOP leadership, riding the wave of the Republican Revolution of ’94, decided to eliminate many subsidy programs and replace them with a supposedly temporary direct payment scheme to introduce farmers to the free market. When commodity prices dropped in the late 1990’s, however, farmers were up in arms and pressured Congress to pass big new emergency subsidy bills and retreat to a heavily subsidized policy framework in the 2002 farm bill.

Since then, farm subsidies have been sacrosanct, topping the list of priorities of Big Ag’s powerful lobbying groups and leading members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. Whenever annual spending bills came into conflict with the funding promises made every five years in the farm and food bills, subsidies to large agribusinesses were protected by an impenetrable shield. Instead, Congress made the cuts to conservation programs, but also to research, energy and organic farming initiatives.

The message from the industrial agriculture lobby came through loud and clear: Don’t touch our subsidies.

That is why this week’s Appropriations Committee session was so remarkable. This time, members of the committee did go after commodity crop subsidies – and they won. The specific changes were relatively small, but the shift in message was enormous.

Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, a longtime champion of fiscal restraint and subsidy reform, offered two amendments. The first would require that money currently being sent to Brazilian cotton farmers as a result of a trade dispute over subsidies to U.S. cotton farmers be taken out of those same offending subsidy programs, not somewhere else in the federal budget. In other words, since the cotton subsidies got us in trouble, they should take the hit. This common sense amendment passed on a voice vote.

A later amendment offered by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), former chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and a champion for federal nutrition programs, went even farther. It would kill off the Brazilian payments altogether in order to put that money into the Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Feeding Program, which had been slated to take a big hit in the bill. In accepting her amendment on another voice vote, the committee took a stand for the first time in favor of putting subsidies a little lower on the priority list in this austere budget climate.

Rep. Flake also won approval of an amendment that would limit farm subsidies to individuals making less than $250,000 a year in adjusted gross income. The current law “limits” subsidies to individuals making less than $750,000 a year ($1.5 million for a married couple).

A $250,000 cap seems eminently sensible, even generous, but in recent years the notion that millionaires should not receive federal subsidies courtesy of the American taxpayer has been a radical idea on Capitol Hill. The previous limit was a sky-high $2.5 million, and it took an epic struggle to have it lowered in the 2008 farm and food bill to the still-laughable $1.5 million. At the time, farm state lawmakers and the Congressional leadership boasted about the dramatic “reform” they had achieved, calling it a major shift.

Only in the through-the-looking-glass world of farm payments would a $1.5 million income cap be called “reform.”

As Congress tackles the hard work of reducing the federal debt, it is right for members to rethink the priorities of the past. Millionaire land owners and large agribusinesses do not need a handout from taxpayers still struggling to make ends meet. Feeding programs for the poorest pregnant women and infants must take precedence over paying hush money to Brazilian cotton farmers. There are many parts of the spending bill that continue to fund wrong-headed priorities, but here, at least, were two places where the committee did the right thing. We applaud them for taking these small first steps.

In contrast, it was absolutely heartbreaking that not a single member even mentioned the tremendous cuts the bill makes to conservation programs.

Conservation programs are often the only line of defense against the serious environmental problems associated with modern agriculture, including soil erosion and water pollution. But amid much discussion of slaughtering horses, government contracts with convicted felons and the meaning of “hard science,” the word conservation never even came up.

No one stood up for the Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays growers to farm more sustainably and enhance the farm ecosystem. The program is slated for a cut of $171 million, which the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has said will force the Department of Agriculture to break existing contracts with farmers, never mind signing up new farmers.

No one came forward to restore the $350 million for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Congress has already reneged on $1 billion in funding promises for EQIP since 2008.

No one made the case for the Wetlands Reserve Program, which has been critical to reversing the incredible loss of wetlands in this country and generates more economic activity through wildlife, recreation and prevented pollution than the government puts into it. The program is slated for a permanent reduction that will put it in an even more precarious position going into next year’s debate on renewing the farm bill, where it has no baseline funding.

No one called attention to the fact that bad ethanol policies and an economic boom in farm country are causing farmers to plow up sensitive conservation land and native prairie to cash in on high commodity prices, leading to ever more habitat destruction, soil loss and what is likely to be the largest-ever dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

No one mentioned that conservation programs are the last bulwark against this ruinous rush for fence row-to-fence row production and over-exploitation of land – and the extensive water pollution that results; nor that these programs represent nearly $5 billion a year – sorry, $4 billion if this bill becomes law – that goes to farmers, disproportionately to the smaller farms so often used as justification for all ag programs.

None of this is final, of course. The spending bill will be voted on by the full House of Representatives in a couple of weeks or so. And then it goes to the Senate. In the meantime, EWG will work with others in the conservation community to ensure that members of Congress come to the floor to defend these vital conservation programs and lock in the positive gains made in recent years.

If progress is to be made via smaller steps, the next one is clear, and the imperative is on all of us who care about sustainable farming to push Congress to take it.


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