Government

Grassley seeking farm bailout payments

Federal aid program pays farmers hurt by trade wars

Tim O’Brien, left, a farmer from Fayette County, voices his concerns about crop prices July 3 to Sen. Chuck Grassley during a town hall meeting at the Fayette County Courthouse in West Union. (Waterloo Courier)
Tim O’Brien, left, a farmer from Fayette County, voices his concerns about crop prices July 3 to Sen. Chuck Grassley during a town hall meeting at the Fayette County Courthouse in West Union. (Waterloo Courier)

WASHINGTON — Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley is one of at least two senators applying to be paid under a $12 billion federal bailout program set up by the White House to help farmers hurt by trade hostilities, representatives from their offices said.

The Iowa Republican pressed the Trump administration this spring to relieve farmers who have been pummeled by Chinese tariffs on their exports amid the wider trade war. The other senator to apply for bailout money, Jon Tester, D-Mont., has criticized the impact of the tariffs on farmers and called on the administration to help Montana ranchers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed last week it had sent more than 7,800 bailout checks totaling more than $25 million to farmers across the country. The assistance is intended to help farmers survive the trade war with China, which dramatically widened in scope this month after the United States announced it would target another $200 billion in Chinese goods.

Grassley, a farmer for most of his life, defended his plan to seek bailout money and said he has been a consistent advocate for farmers. His family farm near New Hartford is operated by his oldest son.

“Sen. Grassley participates in farm programs for which he is legally eligible, including this program, like every other farmer,” said spokesman Michael Zona. “Grassley receives no special treatment and is always transparent about his participation. As a family farmer, Sen. Grassley brings firsthand knowledge and experience on behalf of agriculture and rural America to the policymaking tables in Washington.”

There is no rule against a lawmaker receiving the aid. And 33 members of Congress — directly or through immediate family members — have received federal farming subsidies over the past two decades, amounting to a collective $15 million from 1995 to 2016, according to the Environmental Working Group, a watchdog on agricultural subsidies.

Grassley and Tester are the only lawmakers of about two dozen contacted from that list who told the Washington Post they would apply for the bailout. Twelve members said they would not be applying, and 13 either declined to comment or have not returned a request for comment.

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Grassley has said the bailout offers important help for farmers in the short-term, but the administration’s priority should be on opening “markets and opportunity, not government handouts.” Grassley did not meet with USDA or White House officials to draft the bailout program, a spokesman said., nor review it or propose revisions to it.

Grassley grows both corn and soybeans but like other farmers will not be applying until after they are harvested, his office said. His farm consists of about 750 acres, which means his bailout could range between a few hundred dollars to $34,000, depending on how much of his crops are soybeans.

The USDA has denied requests to make public the identities of those seeking or receiving bailout checks, citing the privacy of the farmers.

Defenders of the bailout program say it will help farmers battered by Chinese tariffs weather the trade storm, while critics argue it is all but guaranteed to aid wealthier farmers who already receive substantial government assistance.

The USDA program caps maximum payments at a combined $125,000 for dairy and hog production, as well as a combined $125,000 for corn, cotton, sorghum, soybeans and wheat, according to the USDA’s website.

The USDA’s eligibility requirements also bar those with over $900,000 in annual income from receiving bailout money. Couples filing jointly could seek payments if they have under $1.8 million in annual income.

Scott Faber, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Environmental Working Group, argued the senators’ participation in the bailout shows how it will help affluent farmers.

Grassley’s net worth in 2015 was $3.3 million, and Tester’s in 2015 was $3.9 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. U.S. senators are paid $174,000 annually.

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“Many taxpayers would be shocked to learn members of Congress who are receiving what by any measure is a lot of money are now also receiving a bailout check ostensibly designed to help struggling farmers,” Faber said. “It underscores exactly what’s wrong with the bailout program — that many of the recipients of farm bailout funding are doing just fine.”

Asked to respond to Faber’s criticism, Grassley’s office pointed to the senator’s advocacy to close loopholes that allow people who are not farmers to claim farm subsidies. For years, Grassley has led efforts to cut federal farm subsidies he has said go to too many people not actively involved in farming.

“The recently announced aid package by the Trump administration allows farmers to sign up for assistance based on set guidelines that are the same for everyone,” his office said in a statement. “Additionally, since the threat of retaliatory tariffs against agricultural products, Sen. Grassley has made clear several times to President Trump that farmers want markets, not aid.”

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