Farm Bill compromise draws criticism

Washington_Farm-state senators have crafted a tentative compromise on a $288 billion farm bill, but they already face bipartisan criticism that the bill doesn't do enough to cut government subsidies.

Critics say the legislation is too heavy on subsidies for wealthy farmers and should spend more money on conservation programs designed to protect the land and on food programs for the poor.

Full details of the five-year bill, scheduled to be considered by the Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday, have yet to be released. But an aide to Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said the legislation would ban government payments to "non-farmers" whose income averages more than $750,000 a year. The bill defines non-farmers as those who make less than two-thirds of their income from agriculture.

There would be no new income-based limits on what a person defined as a farmer can collect from the government. Current law reduces payments to those with an average income of more than $2.5 million.

Many senators say that doesn't go far enough.

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa called the limits "window dressing" and said he and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., will offer an amendment on the Senate floor to cap overall payments at $250,000 a year. They are currently capped at $360,000.

Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., are offering an alternative bill that would eliminate direct payments - subsidies that are not based on current crop production or prices - and replace them with crop insurance for all farmers.

"We want to scrap the broken, wasteful system," said Lautenberg.

Environmental groups, international aid organizations and other farm advocacy groups have joined the Bush administration in pressuring Congress to limit the billions of dollars that go to farmers each year. According to The Environmental Working Group, just 10 percent of farmers received 66 percent of federal farm payments during 2002-2005.

Harkin and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., the lead negotiators on the bill, have said they would like to do more to limit farm subsidies, but they don't have the votes in the Agriculture committee. Lawmakers from the South have objected to lowering annual payments because crops grown there, such as rice and cotton, are more expensive to grow.

Conrad said that any changes could derail the entire bill, which was carefully negotiated within a tight budget to gain votes of various committee members.

A House bill passed in July would ban payments to all of those who earn an average $1 million a year or more. The Bush administration threatened to veto the legislation on grounds it did not do enough to cut subsidies.

Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner said Tuesday that he has not seen the full details of the Senate bill, but he said that anything that opens up the possibility of payments going to the largest, wealthiest farmers "is not reform in our eyes."

President Bush has proposed reducing payments to individuals who make more than $200,000.

According to members of the agriculture panel, the Senate farm bill would also:

- Allow farmers to participate in an optional program that would allow them to collect payments when crop revenue is low compared to a statewide average;

- Boost loan support for several crops;

- Increase spending for some conservation programs;

- Include a compromise that would allow some small meat plants to sell their products across state lines.

The Senate Finance Committee passed farm legislation earlier this month that would add extra money to the agriculture committee bill, including $5 billion in weather-related agricultural disaster aid.

In addition to criticism over payment limits, the bill could face other complications on the Senate floor. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said senators may offer an amendment to give legal status to some temporary migrant farm workers.

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