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House ag panel passes $3.7 billion reconciliation package

The House Agriculture Committee passed an agricultural reconciliation package drafted by Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., that would cut spending by USDA by $3.7 billion over five years.

The proposed reduction is 23 percent more than the $3 billion target assigned the Agriculture Committee by the House Budget Committee and more than the $3.01 billion in spending reductions approved by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

“I am pleased that the committee agreed to a balanced and fiscally responsible reconciliation package preventing any one program from unduly bearing the lion’s share of the cuts,” said Goodlatte. “It is unrealistic to think we can meet the pressing challenges facing our nation without reducing federal spending and redirecting priorities.”

The panel’s reconciliation plan was also below the $4.25 billion figure being talked about prior to the committee’s 24-20 vote in favor of the $3.7 billion figure on Oct. 28. The American Farm Bureau Federation said those cuts would be “disproportionate to agriculture’s share of total mandatory spending.”

Democrat members accused the committee of “prying open the 2002 farm bill” and forcing through a budget measure that would harm agriculture and rural America.

“This budget bill will hurt those who are already struggling in rural communities, and it will increase the deficit as it damages commodity, nutrition, conservation and rural development programs,” said Rep. Collin C. Peterson, ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee.

Peterson noted the committee was only required under the House-Senate Budget Resolution passed last spring to reduce spending in mandatory programs under its jurisdiction by $3 billion. However, the Republican leadership called on the committee to make even deeper reductions.

“Specifically, these changes included: reductions to commodity programs at a time when farmers are facing disaster losses and skyrocketing energy prices, reductions to conservation programs when more than three out of every four farmers seeking to participate in the programs are already turned away, and reductions to the food stamp and child nutrition programs, even as the needs for food assistance grow in the aftermath of disasters,” said Peterson.

Democrats offered several amendments but all were defeated, mostly on party line votes. One would have recognized more than $11 billion in savings that the farm bill has achieved since 2002 and eliminated the need for the committee to open it. Democrats also offered amendments that would have provided emergency disaster assistance to rural and agricultural communities and that would have restored nutrition programs and other rural priorities targeted in the bill.

The package, which will be considered by the full House and then submitted to a conference committee to resolve differences between it and the Senate version, includes $617 million in savings in fiscal 2006 and $3.08 billion in fiscal 2007-10.

The House Ag Committee plan includes:

• Reductions in direct payments to row crop producers of 1 percent for the 2006-09 crop years for a savings of $212 billion; cuts in advance payments that may be requested from 50 percent to 40 percent for the 2006 and 2007 crop years for a savings of $513 billion; and elimination of cotton’s Step 2 program by Aug. 1, 2006, for savings of $282 million. Total savings: $1.01 billion.

• A reduction in funding for the watershed rehabilitation program to $50 million in fiscal 2007 for savings of $225 million; capping funding for the Conservation Security Program at $2.213 billion for fiscal 2006-10 for savings of $504 million; and eliminating funding for the Agricultural Management Assistance Program for 2007-10 for savings of $31 million. Total savings: $760 million.

• Eliminating funds for the Renewable Energy Program in fiscal 2007 for savings of $23 million.

• Eliminating funds in five categories of spending for Rural Development Programs in fiscal 2007 for savings of $446 million.

• Canceling available funds for the Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems in fiscal 2007 through fiscal 2009 for savings of $620 million.

• Limiting categorical eligibility for food stamps to recipients of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families — cash assistance only — for fiscal 2006-10 for savings of $569 million and increase the five-year, in-country waiting period for food stamp eligibility for legal immigrants to seven years for savings of $275 million. Total savings: $844 million.

In passing the reconciliation package, Minnesota’s Peterson said the Republican majority “broke the promise we made in 2002 and used the farm bill like a piggy bank to pay for their budget-busting plan. We will continue to fight this fiscally irresponsible and morally bankrupt budget process.”

The National Farmers Union also called the plan a step in the wrong direction. “These cuts will place a further burden on our farmers and ranchers who are already struggling due to low commodity prices, skyrocketing energy costs, and devastating weather conditions,” NFU President Dave Frederickson said. “Now is not the time to cut programs beneficial to our nation’s producers and rural communities.”

But other organizations were more accepting of the proposal, and more than one thanked ag committee chairman Goodlatte for keeping the reductions to commodity programs as low as possible.

National Cotton Council Chairman Woods Eastland said that when the House and Senate bills are conferenced, he expects the respective agriculture chairmen — Goodlatte and Senate ag committee chairman Saxby Chambliss — will work to avoid undermining agriculture.

“Both chairmen did a remarkable job given their circumstances, and substantial conferencing will need to take place, but the U.S. cotton industry recognizes the chairmen’s work on packages that will minimize impact on current farm law structure and on producer income,” Eastland noted.

“The USA Rice Federation appreciates Chairman Goodlatte’s efforts to keep reductions to commodity programs as low as possible and proportional across all mandatory program areas,” USA Rice Producers’ Group Chairman Paul T. Combs said.

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