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Congress finds support for farm subsidy change

Wed., Sept. 11, 2013

Crop insurance would supersede direct payments

With Congress eyeing the prospect of military involvement in Syria and another impending debt standoff, the likelihood of federal farm and nutritional support legislation passing this month is dwindling by the day.

That’s bad news for the American taxpayer, according to Pacific Northwest wheat growers and one prominent Washington think tank.

While the two chambers on Capitol Hill grow further apart on funding levels for nutritional assistance, they agree on eliminating the increasingly unpopular direct payment program that pays farmers a flat rate for historic yields, regardless of whether a crop is planted. Since its inception in 1996, the direct payment program has doled out nearly $50 billion to farmers nationwide, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonpartisan group based in Washington, D.C., that keeps tabs on agricultural subsidies.

Proposals from the House of Representatives and the Senate each end direct payments, opting instead to increase crop insurance offerings to differing degrees. Either proposal would result in a net savings of close to $40 billion through 2023 compared to current law. Eric Maier, a Ritzville wheat grower and legislative chairman for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, said federal feet-dragging is preventing the implementation of more efficient safety nets for farmers.

“It’s really sad that we can’t get a bipartisan deal,” Maier said. A December agreement is looking more and more likely, he added.

Also on the table is another yearlong extension of the 2008 law, a path legislators took last year when the House failed to act on a Senate-approved plan. That decision left direct payments intact, and more than 600 Spokane-area residents accepted payments in excess of $1 million last year, according to the Environmental Working Group.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Spokane, has said multiple times this summer she’s committed to passing a farm bill by Sept. 30. To do that, the House and Senate must resolve major differences between funding levels for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The Senate-passed bill cuts funding to the program by about $4 billion over the next 10 years. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in a memo to House Republicans their bill, scheduled for a vote next week, will each year cut that $4 billion amount, totaling $40 billion in savings through 2023. The government spent nearly $80 billion on food stamps last year, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Maier said he’s heard the farm bill could be rolled into a debt ceiling deal. The Treasury may default on its loans in mid-October if Congress doesn’t act.

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