By MARY CLARE JALONICKAssociated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - There's still a little something for everyone in massive farm bills that Congress is considering this week, even though the legislation would cut billions of dollars from federal farm and food subsidies.
The Senate version of the bill, to be considered by the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday, makes concessions to Southern rice and peanut farmers, thanks to a new top Republican on the committee, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran. Because those Southern-grown crops rely on subsidies called direct payments that are being eliminated, the bill would make it easier for those farmers to receive alternate subsidies if prices dip.
The House bill, authored by Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and being considered by the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday, is even more favorable to Southern farms, which are among the nation's biggest.
Each bill would eliminate $5 billion in annual direct payments that aren't tied to production or crop prices and would consolidate other programs. At the same time, the bills would create new programs with some of that money and raise the subsidies for some crops while business is booming in the agricultural sector.
Both bills would boost federally subsidized crop insurance and a new program that covers smaller losses on planted crops before crop insurance kicks in, favoring Midwestern corn and soybean farmers who use crop insurance most often.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the changes are meant to make farm programs more efficient. The Senate bill calls for roughly $2.4 billion a year in cuts, while the House would save $4 billion out of about $100 billion annually.
"Instead of subsidies that pay out every year even in good times, the bill creates risk management tools that support farmers when they are negatively impacted by weather disaster or market events beyond their control," she said.
The two bills are further apart on domestic food aid. The Senate bill would cut $400 million out of almost $80 billion spent annually on food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. In an effort to appease conservatives, the House bill would cut $2 billion annually from the program and rewrite policy that allows some people who already receive benefits to automatically receive food stamps.
Balancing the cutbacks important to conservatives with maintaining the generous safety net that farmers have relied on for decades will be key to getting the bill passed before current farm programs expire Sept. 30.
This is the third year in a row that farm-state lawmakers have tried to push the bill through; though it passed the Senate, the House declined to take up the bill last year after conservatives in that chamber objected to the bill's cost and insisted on higher cuts to food stamps. House leaders have given supporters more optimism this year as they have said they plan to put the measure on the floor this summer.
Longtime critics of farm policy say that even with the belt-tightening, the legislation is still a giveaway to the largest farms which tend to receive the largest shares of the subsidies.
"It's very disappointing in a time of runaway deficits and record farm income," says Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group.
Farm groups defend the policy by using last year's drought as an example. Despite widespread losses, federally subsidized crop insurance helped farmers recover.
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