Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Food Fight: Congress Battles Over Farm Commodity Payments

There's a battle being waged right now in a far-off place, and just who will win the battle is difficult to predict. The outcome of this fight is likely to affect the lives of many Iowans.

No, we're not talking about Iraq. This fight is being waged in the halls of Congress, and the end result of the battle will be the 2007 Farm Bill.

The legislation that regulates U.S. agricultural policies now, the 2002 Farm Bill, has a five-year life span and is set to expire this year. Congress has been at work for months in preparation for the process of writing new ag policies. Iowa's delegation in the new Democratic-controlled Congress carries a lot of clout, namely on the Senate side where Sen. Tom Harkin holds the chairmanship on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

But the real ag action right now is in the U.S. House, where agriculture committee chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., is reportedly having a tough time building any consensus on serious reforms that would fix the flaws in the current ag policy.

Peterson has been dueling with fellow Democratic congressman Ron Kind of Wisconsin and others over policy on farm commodity payments. That fight came to a head last week as the House Subcommittee on General Commodities and Risk Management conducted the markup of its portion of the farm bill.

That subcommittee nixed not only the specific proposals of chairman Peterson, it also rejected Kind's reform package as well as the proposals of the Bush Administration. At the end of the pitched battle, the subcommittee simply approved an extension of the language in the 2002 Farm Bill.

As stated by the House Committee on Agriculture, "This retains the basic farm safety net by extending marketing assistance loans, direct payments and counter-cyclical payments and keeps intact the percentage of base acres for which farmers may receive payments. The committee also considered and rejected amendments representing alternative Farm Bill proposals."

Translation: they voted to maintain the status quo.

The battle is definitely not settled yet, but this will certainly be seen as a defeat for supporters of reform in the farm commodity payment system.

One of the main topics of concern over this defeat is the fact that a few very wealthy individuals and large farm operations are receiving millions in commodity payments. This fact has been exposed recently with the unveiling of the Environmental Working Group's new database that shows just who is receiving the bulk of federal dollars under the 2002 Farm Bill.

A Des Moines Register article recently exposed some of the biggest recipients of these funds, stating that a Florida real-estate developer collects $3.2 million in farm subsidies over a three-year period. Texas' legendary King Ranch, which owns vast cotton holdings in addition to its cattle, tops even that by getting $3.9 million, as stated in the Register article. "No one has to cheat to get sums like these. Most of the money came through a loophole in federal subsidy rules that allows individuals and companies to claim payments on every bushel or bale they can produce. Six individuals collected at least $1 million each this way from 2003 through 2005, and seven claimed more than $700,000 apiece over the three-year period."

This revelation comes as no surprise to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan. Grassley and Dorgan have been pushing for caps on the amount of money that an individual should receive under federal farm programs. As reported by Iowa Independent, Grassley and Dorgan have asked that hard limits on commodity payments be included in the Senate version of the 2007 farm bill. The Grassley-Dorgan legislation, which was introduced in the Senate in May, would cap payments in an effort to better serve smaller farms rather than large corporate-farming operations.

Just what will happen with proposed reforms of farm commodity payments is really up in the air right now. The House and the Senate won't continue the debate in earnest until mid-July.

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