Direct payments, long the target of farm program critics and fiscal watchdogs, survived another attempt at doing away with them last week when the Senate rejected a Democratic alternative to across-the-board spending cuts.
The defeat highlighted a possible divide between the top leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees, who are trying to find a way to pay for a multiyear farm bill.
House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas praised the defeat, saying the legislation (S 388) unfairly targeted agriculture by seeking $31 billion in savings by ending the payments. The annual payments to farmers and property owners are based on historic crop production on qualified acres and are issued regardless of market conditions.
Of the $31 billion, $3.5 billion would have been used to fund crop and livestock assistance plans as well as so-called orphan programs left without money when the 112th Congress extended parts of the 2008 farm bill (PL 110-246). Six billion dollars would have been exempt from future sequestration cuts.
The net direct payment cuts of $21.7 billion combined with a mix of tax changes and $27.5 billion in net savings from the Defense Department would have offset $85 billion in automatic spending cuts for the remainder of fiscal 2013 and for part of fiscal 2014.
Lucas said the bill would have reduced the amount of money available to pay for a five-year farm bill he and his Senate counterpart, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., plan to complete this year. Lucas and Stabenow had hoped they could start their committee farm bill work in February but put their plans on hold because of the sequester, the March 27 expiration of a temporary spending bill (PL 112-175) for the federal government and the end of an agreement on the national debt ceiling in May.
Under the sequester, the budget for non-exempt programs at the Agriculture Department will be trimmed an average of 5 percent.
Lucas, R-Okla., said the Senate Democrats’ proposal "called for a 50 percent cut to a single title in the farm bill that accounts for 6 percent of overall agriculture spending and less than 1 percent of overall federal spending. America’s farmers and ranchers deserve better than to be used as a pawn in a political game."
He noted Stabenow’s role in developing the Senate measure with Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., by pointedly referring to it as the Reid-Stabenow bill.