Inland Northwest farmers are flocking to federal offices by the thousands these days to sign contracts that would end farm subsidy programs.
But a House panel wants to change the rules and reduce payments to farmers, even before that program starts.
The proposal is drawing criticism from farm organizations and Republican leaders in the House and Senate.
It could pose a special problem for U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, who serves on the Agriculture Appropriation Subcommittee and voted for the proposal.
The Spokane Republican is caught between competing interests. He wants to balance the budget, find more money for ag research and protect the so-called “market transition” payments.
Under current budget projections being used by House Republicans, Congress can’t do all three.
The subcommittee voted last week to meet its budget target by cutting several farm programs. Among the changes was a $98 million cut to the first year of the market transition program - a seven-year series of payments in declining amounts designed to ease farmers out of the old subsidy and price-support system for wheat and other crops.
“I don’t think anyone should over-react to this exercise,” Nethercutt said Monday, describing the proposal as an early attempt to meet budget targets. “The government’s going to be fair with the farmer.”
Changes are likely before the final farm budget gets out of the full House and Senate, he said.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Agriculture Chairman Richard Lugar of Indiana both blasted the proposal late last week as an attack on the “Freedom to Farm Act” passed earlier this year.
Monday, two of Nethercutt’s Democratic opponents did likewise.
Judy Olson of Garfield, Wash., a former president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, said the proposal makes Congress look like it’s reneging on its promises.
“There were assurances that this would be a guaranteed, seven-year program,” Olson said. “We know that one Congress cannot bind another to an agreement, but it looks like this Congress can’t even bind its own self.”
If this Congress makes a change, what will keep future Congresses from reducing payments even further, she asked.
Another Democratic challenger, Sue Kaun of Spokane, also criticized the House subcommittee for trying to make the changes without notifying farmers, who are now deciding about whether to sign up for the program.
Nethercutt said that while he voted for the change in the subcommittee hearing, he did “raise privately” his concerns about the changes with the panel’s chairman.
The money coming out of the market transition payments would restore money for farm research, Nethercutt said. In a $40,000 payment - the maximum allowed under the new law - it would amount to a $400 cut for a farm, he said.
In the long run, agriculture research may benefit farmers more than the 1 percent of payments they would lose, he said. It could find ways to control diseases and boost exports.
Before the appropriations bill goes to the House floor for a vote, Nethercutt said he hopes to find a way to fund both the research and the transition payments while meeting budget targets.
“I’ll try to amend it to cut other places and restore the transition payments,” he said.
Asked if he would vote to cut the transition payments if such an amendment fails, he replied: “I don’t know yet.”
The subcommittee’s proposal apparently has not affected the signup for the transition payment program, which began May 20.
Steve Hoig, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official in Spokane, said about 25 percent of Washington’s 11,481 eligible farms have enrolled in the program.
Farmers have until July 12 to sign up. After that, the program is closed and enrollment will not be reopened.
Farmers believe they are signing a seven-year, binding contract, said USDA official Don Graedel, who is enrolling farms in Whitman County.
Farmers there are signing up at a pace of about 55 a day, and none has expressed concerns about the proposed changes, Graedel said.
That may be because few know that the subcommittee is proposing the change, he added.