Senate Budget Spares Crop Subsidies, Cuts Conservation Payments

Thursday, September 17, 2009

E and E News/Greenwire, Allison Winter

Published March 26, 2009

Farmland conservation programs could take a hit in the spending blueprint under discussion in the Senate Budget Committee.

The chairman's mark for the bill keeps crop subsidy programs intact but supports spending cuts for the Agriculture Department's largest working-lands conservation program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said yesterday.

Both the House and Senate budgets, first vetted yesterday, avoid the cuts to farm subsidy payments that President Obama floated in his budget outline. Instead, Conrad said his budget would have "targeted savings" in EQIP, crop insurance and market access programs. The agency's massive Conservation Reserve Program avoided the chopping block.

The funding shift was a blow to environmental groups who favor the conservation programs and supported Obama's call to cut crop subsidy programs.

"Senator Conrad is proposing to take us in exactly the wrong direction by refusing to reform the abuses that funnel billions in taxpayer dollars to large profitable farm operations and wealthy landowners while cutting programs that fight global warming," said Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group.

But preservation of most of the farm bill programs was a relief for Agriculture Committee members, who fought for the programs in the farm bill they completed less than one year ago. The House and Senate Agriculture committees sent letters to the budget panel this month asking them to reject Obama's plan.

Obama's budget outline included a number of cuts to farm subsidies -- which would total more than $16 billion in cuts over 10 years, according to the White House. Most significantly, it would phase out direct payments to farms with more than $500,000 in sales revenue.

The budget is not the end for the proposal, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag said yesterday. Orszag told reporters that the administration plans to work to advance the subsidy cuts through other legislation. He said he would continue to consult with Conrad and House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who also opposed the plan.

"There's lots of different ways of getting at this issue, and we will be working with not only Senator Conrad, but also Chairman Peterson and others to fashion legislation that saves money on agricultural subsidies, especially to large farms," Orszag said. "And there are lots of different ways of doing that."

Conrad's budget instead targets EQIP, which offers cost-share assistance for landowners who want to make environmental improvements on their land -- including reduction of air and water pollution, stream buffer improvements and habitat enhancement for imperiled species.


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