Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Clinton Camp Keeps It Vague on Commodity Payments

With Congress in the middle of debate on the 2007 Farm Bill, commodity payments and other subsidies are a hot topic among rural farm organizations and environmental groups.

Iowa received $14.8 billion in federal farm payments from 1995 to 2005, which clearly illustrates what's at stake.

Much of the argument over the farm program involves the fact that there are virtually no limits on the amount that an individual can rake in from the federal government. As the argument continues over preserving the federal safety net for farmers, the fact that across the nation large agribusinesses and wealthy individuals are swallowing up 70 percent of the farm program's dollars is causing many to rethink the farm commodity payment system.

But as Iowa sets the stage for the 2008 Presidential Caucuses, some campaigns are oddly silent and haven't offered many specifics on the system.

Iowa Independent started asking around. It turns out the front-runners for the Democratic nomination tend to all believe that a strong safety net for farmers is necessary. But a distinct difference appears to have emerged among the three front-runners about proposed limits on commodity payments.

John Edwards and Barack Obama support a strict limit on the amount that individuals should receive in farm program payments, but Hillary Clinton has adopted a vague position.

In an interview with Iowa Independent, Stephanie Bjornson, Clinton's deputy communications director for Iowa, said Sen. Clinton of New York is not calling for payment limits. At least not now. "The farm bill is such a complicated piece of legislation," said Bjornson. "She (Clinton) wants to find the best formula or payment structure to help all farmers to get the assistance they need when they need it. So I know that's kind of a general way of looking at this, but you know, hopefully when the bill gets worked up in mid-July we'll have something more to say about it."

This "wait-and-see" attitude from Clinton refers to the ongoing debate on the Farm Bill and just what may come out of the process in Congress.

"The basic answer is, yes, she has supported limiting payments in the past," Bjornson continued. "But she definitely wants to work with her colleagues in the Senate to find the best way to move forward in terms of helping all farmers get the assistance that they need when they need it after natural disasters and low prices and things of that nature. Senators Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley are looking at how to restructure the payment system based on need ... to best assist all farmers when they find themselves in tough times."

This carefully worded language is quite different from how the Obama and Edwards campaigns responded to questions about payment limits. Tommy Vietor, spokesman for Obama, said that the U.S. senator from Illinois is supporting a limit on payments per individual.

"Senator Obama supports a $250,000 limit on farm commodity payments," said Vietor in an e-mail. "Federal farm assistance programs serve as a safety net and risk-mitigation tool for family farmers who feed the nation and are the foundation of the economy here in Iowa. This limit is common sense reform at a time when the budget is tight, and when America should be providing more incentives to family farmers to produce renewable energy and conserve wildlife habitats all across the country."

When asked about commodity payment limits, the Edwards campaign was quick to point out that Edwards has already called for a $250,000 limit on commodity payments, and noted that the former U.S. senator from North Carolina was the first to take this position and post it on his website. Edwards' position is laid out in his proposed "Rural Recovery Act," where he states his support for commodity payment limits. "To help family farmers (Edwards) will also limit farm subsidies to $250,000 per person, close loopholes in payment limits, and expand conservation programs."

Other Democratic hopefuls weren't quick to take a position on the subject. The Joe Biden and Bill RIchardson campaigns did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Iowa Independent. A staffer for U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut would only say that Dodd believes reform is necessary to address abuses of the system and "to direct support to the farmers who most need it, instead of the largest and wealthiest farming operations."

1 comment:

Dien Judge said...

The Bill Richardson campaign contacted me this morning and stated his position on this subject.

Richardson has announced his support of payment limits like in the Grassley-Dorgan bill (it calls for a $250,000 cap, similar to the position of Edwards and Obama). Here's the statement Richardson sent in an e-mail:

"I support the Dorgan-Grassley Bill. Today, two-thirds of American farmers receive no subsidies at all. The current system too frequently supports wealthy absentee land owners and huge agri-business companies at the expense of small farmers.

As the Governor of a western state, I understand how essential farming is to our nation's fabric. I also understand that rural America continues to face challenging times, as family farms are overrun by concentration and vertical integration. I know how unfair the current system of farm payments can be to those who need it the most.

The Dorgan-Grassley limits will return farm payments to their original intent: to preserve a uniquely American way of life. Moreover, with the estimated $1 billion that this reform will save, we could revive important conservation, energy, and nutrition programs that have for too long gone under-funded."