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The Times
  • Editorial: Enough shared sacrifice in farm bill?

  • A farm bill has passed the U.S. Senate and now sits in the House, where it seems to be languishing as majority-if-splintered Republicans fight over how much more the 10-year program should be cut.

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  • A farm bill has passed the U.S. Senate and now sits in the House, where it seems to be languishing as majority-if-splintered Republicans fight over how much more the 10-year program should be cut.
    In late June, the Senate, with a rare bipartisan majority - 64-35 - passed a $969 billion farm bill that in the words of one senator "cuts subsidies ... cuts the deficit and ... creates jobs." Specifically it trimmed almost $24 billion from current spending levels, including about 10 percent from conservation programs and $4.5 billion for food stamps. Most importantly, it eliminated direct payments to farmers (about $5 billion annually) in good times and bad in favor of an expanded crop insurance program that pays off only when needed - through natural disaster like the drought farmers are currently suffering, or when commodity prices drop dramatically.
    One supports the move in that direction, as it never made any sense for farmers to get help courtesy of taxpayers when they did not need it - such as last year when farm incomes hit historic highs - or when they didn't even plant a crop. With the federal government racking up mind-boggling deficits, this part of the farm bill only added insult to that self-inflicted injury.
    That said, it's worth noting that the subsidy for crop insurance is still quite significant - Uncle Sam pays almost two-thirds of the premiums - prompting Sen. John McCain to say that he is "hard-pressed to think of any other industry that operates with less risk at the expense of the American taxpayer." There may be some additional wiggle room there, especially for farmers who are doing very well.
    But the big fight has been reserved for food stamps, where there is plenty of room between the $4.5 billion cut in the Senate - out of some $750 billion in total over the next decade - and the $16.5 billion proposed reduction in the House (though if Congressman Paul Ryan, author of the House budget, had his way, that number would grow to a staggering $134 billion and convert food stamps to a block grant program to the states). As it is, the Senate version would impact an estimated 500,000 American households to the tune of $90 a month in food assistance.
    This page has long been hawkish on deficits, so in a way one can see both sides here. On the one hand, if you're going to cut the budget then you have to go where the money is, and food stamp and other nutrition programs are that place. On the other, if frequently you hear that Democrats want to sock it to the rich, Republicans bend over backwards to invite allegations of slapping the poor when they're down by targeting food stamps on the tail of a recession while largely sparing subsidies for more well-heeled corn, soybean and wheat growers who spend so much money lobbying them. Welfare, as always, is in the eye of the beholder.
    Page 2 of 2 - For some, any cut is too much, which is the attitude that got us into this budget disaster to begin with. For others - especially those without the slightest idea of what it means to struggle to make ends meet - these are just numbers, not the people behind them, and so no cut is ever enough. Find a middle ground here.
    There is no small amount of pressure to do so. If Congress can't get its act together by Sept. 30, these farm programs and the dollars that go with them expire. No doubt some House Republicans, wary of passing a nearly trillion-dollar spending plan in an election year, would like to postpone this vote past November, in which case they could work out a temporary extension.
    GOP Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois is among those who thinks that's a bad idea, urging reauthorization of the farm bill prior to Congress' August recess. "The importance of the farm bill ... cannot be overstated - especially as our nation faces the worst drought it has seen in more than 50 years," he said. "Crop insurance ... provides essential protection for farmers ... The farm bill reauthorization sets crop insurance subsidies at reasonable rates, assuring that all farmers can afford this essential coverage ... Congress should immediately focus on protecting American farmers."
    That position was essentially echoed by Illinois Farm Bureau representatives. "Grain prices are obviously going up with the widespread drought, and if we have a crop to sell, that's going to be good for our local economy," said Patrick Kirchhofer, manager of Peoria County's Farm Bureau. Farmers need some assurance that safety net will be there, particularly with their part of the premium due in August rather than October, before they know what their harvest take will be. "What began as a promising corn crop has literally dried up before our eyes," said Illinois Farm Bureau President Philip Nelson. "I urge Congress to work swiftly and in a bipartisan fashion to pass a farm bill that the president can sign as soon as possible."
    When Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was in Peoria, Ill., for a Journal Star editorial board meeting last fall, he talked about the 98 percent of Americans who are not farmers but consumers of what farmers produce, and what they want out of a farm bill. One trusts they want what they do out of every piece of legislation in this challenging era: shared sacrifice. Congress should find a bit more of it and - groundbreaking reform though this is not - move this farm bill to the White House.
    Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.
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