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Dorgan-Grassley amendment falls short in Senate voting

Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, fell four votes short of the supermajority they needed for an amendment aimed at imposing much stricter limits on farm program payments as the Senate inched closer to approving a new farm bill.

The Dorgan-Grassley amendment, which would have placed a “hard cap” of $250,000 on the amount individual farmers could receive, required 60 votes to move forward under an agreement with Senate leaders. The amendment received 56 votes for and 43 against and was withdrawn.

Environmental groups, which had waged a five-year battle to end farm payments to “wealthy, corporate producers,” expressed extreme disappointment at the failure of what appeared to be their last hope for influencing the payment limit rules in the new farm bill.

The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, one of the leaders in the fight for the new rules, accused opponents of the measure of “thwarting the will of the Senate by using procedural roadblocks to insist on a super majority of 60 votes to approve the reform measure.”

But Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., one of the leaders of the fight against Grassley-Dorgan, said opponents were simply using all the tools available against what they considered an unfair amendment.

“We put 80 percent of the reforms Sens. Dorgan and Grassley sought in the 2002 farm bill in the underlying bill that's now before the Senate,” Lincoln told reporters. “I think it was our right to object when we felt the last 20 percent in the Dorgan-Grassley amendment was clearly punitive to Southern growers.”

Lincoln and Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., ranking minority member on the Senate Agriculture Committee; Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.; and John Isakson, R-Ga., all took to the floor to speak against the amendment.

Chambliss, chairman of the ag committee until Democrats claimed the majority a year ago, said the Midwest senators' bill itself treated farm payments unfairly, imposing strict limits on commodity program benefits while allowing unlimited conservation program payments.

“My colleagues have said it is their position that farmers simply get too much money, and we need to cap payments,” Chambliss said during debate on the amendment. “I think it is interesting to note that we tried to put a cap on conservation payments, and we were stymied from doing that in the committee.”

Grassley and Dorgan made many of the arguments they've been making for nearly seven years, but added a few new wrinkles, including references to “cowboy starter kits” and payments to “wealthy patrons of the arts in San Francisco.”

“Down in Texas, they have what are called cowboy starter kits,” said Dorgan. “You can have 10 acres of land that were used to produce rice 20 years ago and have a house on an acre, run a horse on the other eight or nine, and you get a farm program payment, despite the fact you have never farmed and that land hasn't produced a rice crop for 20 years.”

Dorgan also cited an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that Constance Bowles, heiress of a California cattle baron, was the largest recipient of federal cotton subsidies in the state between 2003 and 2005, receiving $1.2 million in payments through her family's cotton farm in Los Banos.

“If we want this sort of thing to continue, then let's not pass this amendment,” said Dorgan. “Our amendment says you ought to be a farmer if you are going to get a farm program payment. Our definition doesn't require you to live on the farm, but it requires you to have active involvement.”

Chambliss said most of the payments to which Dorgan referred in his speech are conservation payments, which would not have been limited by the Grassley-Dorgan payment limits amendment.

Grassley claimed the lack of meaningful reform on payment limits has been forcing land values and cash rents higher, making it difficult for beginning farmers to get a start in agriculture.

He cited a study by Kansas State University's Terry Kastens that government farm program payments have bolstered land values above what they would have been without them. “The evidence is convincing that a significant portion of the subsidies are being bid into cash rent and capitalized into land values,” he said. “If investors were to expect less federal funding, land values would likely decline by as much as 25 percent.”

Arkansas Sen. Lincoln said her research — which included a study by Iowa State University — indicated that farm payments have little, if anything, to do with land prices or cash rents.

The Grassley-Dorgan amendment, she said, would “force thousands of land owners to shift from share rents to cash rents, thus making the tenants on that land less competitive in international markets because of higher production costs.”

Lincoln said she was grateful enough of her colleagues realized how devastating the Grassley-Dorgan amendment would be to farm families across Arkansas and much of the South.

“Farm families in Arkansas should not have to sacrifice their way of life, and that's what this proposal would have done. Moreover, it would have threatened our domestic food supply, which unfortunately has been taken for granted by some. It's hard for me to believe that critics of Southern agriculture do not draw the connection between a strong and balanced farm bill and maintaining our safe food source and maintaining jobs in rural America.”

Later in the session Thursday (Dec. 13), the Senate also defeated an amendment offered by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to significantly reduce the adjusted gross income criteria on farm program payments.

Sen. Klobuchar's amendment, which would have required USDA to stop payments to full-time farmers with an AGI of $750,000 or more and part-time farmers with an AGI of $250,000 or more, received 48 votes for and 47 against, or 12 short of the required 60 votes under an agreement with the Senate leadership.

Approval of the amendment could have meant many professionals or other businessmen who own or operate farms with other family members would have been forced to sell their farming interests or transfer them to others,” said Lincoln.

Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner criticized the Senate action on the Klobuchar amendment, claiming it would have prevented the current law's taking “tax dollars from middle income America and transferring it to the nation's wealthiest few.”

Both Conner and Mike Johanns, his predecessor, supported lowering the Adjusted Gross Income eligibility for commodity programs to $200,000 per farmer, a level Lincoln and other Southern senators said would eliminate a large portion of commercial row crop farmers in the South from farm payments.

The House-passed farm bill reduces the AGI limit to $1 million from the current $2.5 million and the Senate Agriculture Committee-passed farm bill reduces the limit to $750,000 over a period of years.

“The fact is this was plain and simple means testing,” said Lincoln. “We don't have this kind of requirement in other government programs, so why should we have it in agriculture? We lowered the AGI limit in our committee bill by 70 percent, which was a major step toward reform.”

Environmental groups said they were still hopeful the House-Senate conference committee that will reconcile the two farm bills would re-visit the payment limit issue.

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