Senators back President Bush on farm cuts

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Sides are forming quickly on the battle over President Bush's proposed cuts in farm payments.

Two Midwest senators aligned themselves Tuesday with the White House, while cotton, wheat and sorghum growers have hired the former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee to defend the big subsidies he championed in the 2002 Farm Bill.

Bush, seeking to cut farm spending by $5.7 billion over the next decade, wants to lower annual limits on payments and eliminate loopholes that let bigger growers bypass the limits to collect millions of dollars.

The system has made land more expensive and pushed down prices, driving many off the family farm, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Tuesday.

Grassley and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., introduced legislation Tuesday that would make Bush's payment limitations a reality, replacing the current $360,000 cap with a stricter limit of $250,000.

Their bill is backed by taxpayer and environmental groups and anti-poverty and rural advocates.

"The Farm Bill says there's a cap," Ferd Hoefner, spokesman for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said at a news conference with the senators. "We all know that it doesn't work."

Eight percent of producers receive 78 percent of taxpayer-funded subsidies, according to Agriculture Department estimates.

Bush's proposal would affect Southern growers the most, because their rice and cotton crops cost more to grow and get higher subsidies. He already has opposition from Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who heads the Agriculture Committee.

But unlike past agriculture battles, this one won't be regional. Southern producers are backed by Midwestern wheat, corn and soybean growers and a range of other farm groups protesting any cuts in agriculture spending. Bush also wants 5 percent cuts in payments to producers across the board.

That's where former House Agriculture Committee chairman Larry Combest comes in. Combest, a retired GOP congressman from Texas, was an architect of the 2002 Farm Bill and is now lobbying for corn, cotton and grain sorghum growers and other producers.

Combest is working to preserve current farm spending in the budget, which would forestall any talk of payment limitations.

Hiring Combest is just one weapon in the battle, said Sam Willett, director of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association. Groups will urge their members to mount a nationwide grass-roots lobbying effort against spending cuts.

"We believe it would be in the best interests of everybody to defer those kinds of debates until the next farm bill," Willett said.

On the Net:

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