The Senate voted Wednesday to scrap a decades-old link between farm prices and government subsidies, giving farmers a series of fixed but declining payments over seven years.
The bill, dubbed the “Freedom to Farm Act,” eventually could end farm payments, which one out of four Inland Northwest farmers has said would put him out of business.
“This could be the end of family farming,” said Rex Carney, spokesman for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
But it also would save taxpayers billions, cutting agricultural spending to $44 billion over seven years.
“This bill is a winner for farmers, consumers, sportsmen and agriculture industries,” declared Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
The Senate voted 64-32 to pass the legislation despite a last-ditch fight by Democrats who wanted to save at least some connection between market prices and payments.
Democrats charged Republicans are offering welfare to farmers while cutting money for education, school lunches and health care for the poor. They opposed the new system because it makes payments in both good times and bad without reference to market prices.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and others won concessions to shield food stamps, emergency feeding programs and conservation while adding programs to control pollution from agriculture.
Supporters said the overhaul of how the government supports wheat, corn, cotton and rice is necessary to keep remaining farmers afloat and give them an opportunity for greater prosperity.
“Under the Democrats’ system of the last 60 years, farmers have gone from being 17 percent of the population to 2 percent, so I don’t see that the old system has worked very well,” said Jack Silzel, an Oakesdale, Wash., farmer and agricultural aide to Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash. “It’s time that farmers begin to farm for the market rather than a program controlled by the government.”
The bill would wean farmers from federal subsidies over seven years, granting a guaranteed payment of about $5.6 billion in 1996, declining to $4 billion in 2002. Subsidies would be based on traditional crops grown in the last five years.
The bill must win approval by the House and overcome a veto threat from President Clinton. Clinton killed a similar plan in December when it was attached to the Republican’s balanced-budget bill.
While the House GOP favors Freedom to Farm, it is not keen on some of the Senate bill’s Democratic provisions. Those provisions were added to discourage a veto.
Congress has never taken this long to forge a farm bill, which establishes federal agriculture policy for the future. The 1995 farm bill expired Sept. 30.
The delay has disrupted spring planting for many farmers, some of whom depend on government subsidies for up to a third of their annual income.
In exchange for less government support, controls over most planting decisions would end, along with requirements that acres be idled.
“We have a very good opportunity to finally break out of that mold of government restriction,” said Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
In a survey last year of nearly 1,000 Inland Northwest farmers, 25 percent told The Spokesman-Review that they could not earn enough money farming without federal subsidies or working off the farm.
But since that time, wheat prices have soared and many farmers feel they can do better without the government mandating how much they can plant.
In a strategic move designed to overcome a presidential veto, the Senate made changes sought by the administration, including adding a $300 million, three-year mandatory fund for rural water and sewer projects.
The Senate also reduced annual funding from $100 million to $70 million for the Market Promotion Program, which has fed overseas advertising budgets of McDonald’s and other big companies, but also boosted sales of Washington apples and potatoes. The amendment would limit the size of companies eligible for the export promotion money. Staff writer Grayden Jones contrib uted to this report.