Farm Subsidies in Cross Hairs


The following article is from Dow Jones Newswires:

(WASHINGTON) The hunt for cuts has come to this: Even agriculture subsidies — billions in spending both parties have embraced for years — are on the table.

With the farm economy booming and Washington on a diet, a program set up in the 1990s that cuts checks to farmers could be trimmed or eliminated next year when Congress writes a new five-year farm bill.

A group of conservative lawmakers has set its sights on these direct payments, and even farm-state Democrats who like the program say high crop prices make the outlays of about $5 billion a year harder to justify. Recently, the National Corn Growers Association, an industry lobby group, urged Congress to revamp the program, fearing it would be eliminated altogether.

Washington is looking everywhere for savings, even to programs once viewed as sacrosanct, including farm programs and defense spending.

Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s blueprint for the fiscal 2012 budget puts agriculture subsidies in the cross hairs, seeking to cut $30 billion over a decade — starting when the next farm bill is passed in 2012 — out of a total of some $150 billion in total expected spending on farm subsidies.

“We are very focused on getting a grip on spending — that means a lot of things even I like,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) The direct payments have “a target on them,” said Sen. Mike Johanns (R., Neb.), a former supporter of the program.

The farm payments at risk were supposed to be temporary. Lawmakers designed the program in the 1996 farm bill to wean farmers of rice, feed grains, cotton and later soybeans off years of subsidies tied to keeping portions of land fallow.

The direct payments have endured and are now a cornerstone of American farm subsidies. The $5 billion in direct payments to farmers accounts for a third of the roughly $15 billion in total farm subsidies last year, according to government data.

Benefiting are about one million farmers on 260 million acres of land spread around 364 of 435 congressional districts, according to the Agriculture Department and the Environmental Working Group, a organization that wants to eliminate some farm subsidies and use the money to protect natural habitats.

With the farm sector booming — the USDA estimates net farm income this year will be the second-highest in 35 years — direct payments have become an easy target. Iowa State University economist Chad Hart notes that the payments go to farmers regardless of crop price or quality — a way to provide assistance without violating international trade rules.

Farm subsidies have survived previous attempts to cut them back, and defenders will likely cite the continuing support for farmers in Japan and the European Union. This time, the U.S. industry has pared its defense of the status quo.

“Our members of Congress are telling us that they just can’t support this program anymore,” said Anthony Bush, a policy expert with the National Corn Growers Association.

“In times of record-high prices [the government is] still handing out money like this, it’s just politically not possible, feasible or popular these days,” he said.

Mr. Bush said corn farmers have the most to lose if direct payments are eliminated altogether. He said $2.1 billion of the roughly $5 billion in direct payments go to such farmers.

Corn futures Wednesday settled at $7.63 a bushel, down slightly after reaching an all-time high above $7.70 Tuesday. Prices have more than doubled since last summer on strong export demand, record ethanol output and steady buying by domestic livestock producers.

The National Corn Growers Association voted earlier this month to “investigate transitioning direct payments” into a more politically acceptable form of subsidy.

Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, said the direct subsidies have become indefensible because they don’t go to farmers who need them to survive tough times.

Most of the payments go to the largest farmers in the U.S., given the amount of land they own. From 2002, when the program was expanded, through 2010, the top 10{dfeadfe70caf58f453a47791a362966239aaa64624c42b982d70b175f7e3dda2} of recipients received 67{dfeadfe70caf58f453a47791a362966239aaa64624c42b982d70b175f7e3dda2} of the funds, according to David DeGennaro, an Environmental Working Group legislative analyst.

Source:  Dow Jones Newswires

Posted by Haylie Shipp


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