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Senate vote hands Grassley major payment limit defeat

The Senate vote on Amendment 2359 to its budget reconciliation bill may not go down as the biggest ever for commercial agriculture, but it may be close. The 53-46 count marked more than the defeat of another payment limit amendment. This one had more sub-plots than an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

The vote was a setback for the payment limit measure's chief sponsor, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, who boasted he received 66 votes the last time the Senate took up the amendment before it began the Nov. 3 vote.

Grassley not only lost by a simple majority, but he needed 14 more votes for the Senate to waive the budget rules so it could take up the amendment, which was also sponsored by Sens. Byron Dorgan, Mike Enzi, Tom Harkin, Chuck Hagel, Tim Johnson, Sam Brownback and John Thune. All but Enzi (from Wyoming) hail from the Mid-West.

Grassley's discomfort began the day before when Senate Budget Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss gave him an old-fashioned whipping in a 45-minute debate. Chambliss said that while it was true, as Grassley noted, that 10 percent of the nation's farmers receive 72 percent of farm program payments, that 10 percent also accounts for more than 72 percent of the nation's agricultural production.

Furthermore, Chambliss noted, of the $12.5 billion in payments farmers received in 2004, 10 percent went to farmers in Iowa. “Do I think that is unfair?” Chambliss asked. “Absolutely not. Because that is the way the farm bill was designed.”

After Chambliss reminded senators the government had not spent $15 billion of the $52 billion projected for the first three years of the farm bill, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., administered the coup de grace.

Cochran said the government made commitments to farmers in the 2002 farm bill, commitments growers literally took to the bank. Then, he said, “Farmers in my state are suffering from the consequences of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Add to that the record high-energy prices, and you have a recipe for total disaster. This amendment would be a fatal blow to an already beleaguered sector of our state's economy.”

Every citizen has a stake in reducing the deficit,” added Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., “but it is unfair to change the rules our farmers depend on in the middle of the game. To do so would be nothing more than a breach of contract, and it would do little to address our budget deficits.”

Farm organizations have been hammering on the argument by Lincoln and other senators that the government should not change the rules in mid-stream for months. Another theme pushed by the groups: Despite all the rhetoric by Grassley and supporters, the amendment would have done absolutely nothing to help family farms.

Instead of providing more assistance, it would have cut direct payments to any grower from $40,000 to $20,000 and counter-cyclical payments by a similar margin, catching even more producers in the web of what passes for “fair” farm programs these days.

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