WASHINGTON (AP) – Legislation that would continue billions of dollars in payments to farmers won approval Thursday by a Senate committee, with critics pledging to work to reduce the subsidies.
The five-year farm bill, approved unanimously by the Senate Agriculture Committee, would provide more than $280 billion for agriculture and nutrition programs and leave in place most subsidies to producers of major crops.
Opponents say the bill helps wealthy farmers too much and should spend more on conservation programs, food aid for the poor or reducing the federal deficit.
“This committee could do much better on behalf of not just farmers, but all taxpayers,” said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a committee member and former chairman of the panel who said he plans to challenge the bill in the full Senate. “Each passing year the policies seem ever more misguided.”
The legislation does attempt to limit subsidies by eventually banning payments to “nonfarmers” whose income averages more than $750,000 a year. The bill defines farmers as those who earn more than two-thirds of their income from agriculture.
There would be no income-based limits on what a farmer could collect.
President Bush threatened to veto a House version of the farm bill that passed in July. That measure would ban payments to all who earn an average $1 million a year or more. The administration has proposed reducing payments to individuals who make more than $200,000. The current cap is $2.5 million.
Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner told reporters Thursday that the Senate committee’s bill “really equates to no reform at all” and may have less of an impact on limiting subsidies than the House bill. But he stopped short of saying the president would veto it.
Lugar did propose cutting $1.7 billion from direct payments — subsidies often criticized because they are not based on current crop production or prices. His amendment would have shifted that money to nutrition programs, including food stamps and emergency food assistance.
It lost by a 17-4 vote.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who negotiated the bill with the committee chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he hoped that any additional savings achieved from the bill would go toward Lugar’s nutrition proposal.
The legislation is expected to face obstacles in the full Senate.
Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, a committee member who called the payment limits “window dressing,” has said he and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., would seek to cap overall payments at $250,000 a year. They are currently capped at $360,000.
Lugar and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., have said they will try to eliminate direct payments and replace them with crop insurance for all farmers.
Committee members expressed concern about a new subsidy program that would give farmers an option to collect payments when crop revenue is low compared with a statewide average, as opposed to current subsidies that kick in when prices are low. This type of payment program has been proposed by the Agriculture Department and corn growers, who have seen record-high prices in recent years.
The bill, which also boosts spending for conservation programs, energy programs and loan support for several crops, could attract a contentious immigration amendment.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said this week that lawmakers may try to add a measure that would give legal status to some temporary migrant farm workers.
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