Senate Plan Seeks $23 Billion Cut in Farm Aid, First Since 1996

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel recommended $23 billion in cuts to agricultural programs over a decade to reduce the U.S. deficit, the first broad reductions in farm programs in 16 years.

Direct payments to growers of corn, cotton and other crops that cost about $5 billion a year would end while insurance programs against weather losses and low prices would increase under the Democrat-controlled Agriculture Committee's proposal being released today. The plan would consolidate 23 conservation programs into 13 and streamline the food-stamp program, said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

The plan "reforms farm policy, consolidates and streamlines programs, and will reduce the deficit by $23 billion," Stabenow said. "This bill saves taxpayers money while strengthening initiatives that help farmers, ranchers and small business owners create American jobs."

Record U.S. agricultural profits are making crop subsidies a prime target for lawmakers seeking to trim the deficit as they try to write a new farm bill, with legislators and lobbyists battling over the size and shape of the cuts. The House last month approved a plan that would cut Department of Agriculture spending by about $33 billion over 10 years.

The Senate proposal starts debate on a bill that sets farm policy and spending guidelines over five years. Amendments are due by April 23, and the panel will take up the legislation on April 25, with two days of possible debate, Stabenow said earlier this week.

The House Agriculture Committee, which voted to take all of its savings from food stamps, the most expensive USDA program, will begin considering its bill the same day as the Senate, and has scheduled hearings on different provisions through May 18. Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said the final plan may target other areas for savings.

Net farm income reached a record $98.1 billion in 2011 and this year will be $91.7 billion, the second-highest ever, the USDA said in February. President Obama has proposed cutting $32 billion in subsidies over 10 years. The House and Senate farm panels last year crafted a plan to cut no more than $23 billion over 10 years in tandem with the failed congressional supercommittee effort to rein in federal spending.

Groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. farmer organization, the National Corn Growers Association and parties representing wheat, barley and other crops on Thursday wrote to Stabenow and Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the top Republican on the committee, asking that crop insurance be shored up as spending falls.

"Crop insurance is the core risk-management tool used by our producers, and the current program should serve as the foundation for providing additional protection against loss," the groups said in a statement.

Farm subsidies are predicted to reach $11 billion this year.
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