Iowa senators warn of smaller farm bill

Harkin says House action could derail passage

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There is only one hard fact so far about the nationwide farm bill that the Senate will take up this month for the first time since 2008.

It will be smaller.

Members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee have already started hearings on the massive bill to help the nation’s farmers, but the heavy lifting won’t start until the week of April 23.

Iowa’s two senators — Republican Chuck Grassley and Democrat Tom Harkin — already are warning that it will be considerably shrunken from the current version.

In fact, Harkin is worried recent action by the House threatens passage at all.

“We plan to go ahead in the Senate, but the House’s extreme and irresponsible action on the budget will make it far harder to send a new farm bill to the president this year, and pretty likely has ruined our chances for doing so,” Harkin said.

Harkin is a senior member of the Agriculture Committee, and will have a say in whatever legislation emerges. Grassley also is on the committee and is concerned about the bill.

Grassley told The Gazette that direct subsidies for commodity crops, such as corn and wheat, likely won’t be in the bill, saving $15 billion right away. Crop insurance should survive intact, Grassley said, but any other income-support programs are “a little up in the air,” he said.

The conservation component of the bill will likely be shaved by about $4 million, but more flexibility will be given to farmers at the local level to decide how the money is spent. The size of the food stamp program may also be whittled, said Grassley, who last week began a series of town hall hearings across the state to prepare Iowans for a slimmed-down bill.

“We’re going to have a tough time keeping all the initiatives we have going, and there may even be some initiatives that are foregone,” he said.

“I want to have every program contribute to the lessening of the national debt and I don’t want agriculture to do anything that’s not proportionate to any other program,” Grassley added.

The farm bill is actually a two-part piece of legislation, about 70 percent.of which is a nutrition/food stamp program. It is reauthorized every five years, and it is unique in the Senate because alliances and differences emerge over the issue based on geography, not traditional Democratic and Republican principles. That means senators who usually wouldn’t work together sometimes do, while senators that frequently cross the aisle sometimes cannot when it comes to the farm bill.

The current $284 billion bill, approved in 2008, expires in September. Grassley said the size of the farming part of the bill will depend on how much savings can be squeezed from the nutrition share of the legislation.

Harkin is similarly alarmed at how small the farm bill could be. He said while senators from both parties are working cooperatively, the 2013 budget approved by the House a week and a half ago was drastically smaller.

“We know budget cuts to federal agriculture spending are coming. But now the House has passed a budget resolution written by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) calling for much deeper budget cuts to farm bill programs,” Harkin said, adding the House bill uses a rigid, fast-track process that could prevent passage in the Senate,

Such a situation of the farm bill not being reauthorized has happened before — the current bill expired in 2007, for instance, and wasn’t renewed until 2008.

Mindful that non-action by Congress on renewing the farm bill would mean the expiration of several programs, Iowa Reps. Bruce Braley, Leonard Boswell and Dave Loebsack, all Democrats, and Tom Latham, a Republican, in March sent a public letter to the House Agriculture Committee to press for the bill’s passage this year.

“It is critically important to our rural economies and to Iowa farmers that the farm bill supports rural economic development and maintains a safety net for farmers when times are bad and for those that need assistance,” Loebsack said.

Pro-farming lobbying groups in Washington say they are aware that the bill will be leaner, but that critical components such as crop insurance must be included. The National Corn Growers Association, for example, said it is more important than other components such as direct payments.

“Anybody who’s been reading a newspaper knows that the budget situation in Washington means the bill will be smaller,” said Jon Doggett, vice president of public policy for the association. “There is a strong expectation of that.

“What we’re hearing from our members is that they want tools to manage risk, like crop insurance. They also want to make sure there's some protection from sudden price drops — but these programs should only kick in when there’s a significant loss.”

Direct payments aren’t popular among corn-growers anyway, Doggett said.

“Growers look at direct payments as money that is given out whether there’s been a loss or someone has made a whole bunch of money. Our folks are saying that’s not a reasonable expenditure of taxpayer dollars.”

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