(Update June 2005)
When the 2002 Farm Bill was passed, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC) were critical of the projected $180 billion budget outlay for ten years, an 80 percent increase from the previous farm bill. The Conference was specifically concerned about Congress’ failure to target federal income support to those who needed it most, such as small and medium-sized farms. Despite the enormous price tag, several provisions in the Farm Bill, supported by the USCCB and the NCRLC, addressed inadequate hunger policies and the needs of rural communities. These provisions included: restoration of food stamp eligibility to legal immigrants; increased funding for conservation programs; innovative programs to assist new and beginning farmers and ranchers, and various rural development programs.
According to the latest reports, the 2006 budget request by the Administration, which was announced on February 7, 2005, will attempt to reverse the 2002 Farm Bill by limiting the amount of federal assistance to farmers to $250,000 per year, down from the current $360,000 per year. The Administration is also reportedly seeking to close loopholes that allow some large corporate farms to collect millions of dollars in federal assistance and is proposing across the board cuts to programs that could hurt small and moderate-sized farms. The new White House proposal will likely trigger a very divisive fight in Congress between regional farm groups. The payment limitation proposal is very similar to a provision that was proposed in the 2002 Farm Bill by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA). That proposal was passed by both the House and the Senate Agriculture Committees with strong bi-partisan support but was removed in Conference negotiations by southern lawmakers.
The USCCB continues to advocate on behalf of farm policies that enable our nation to maintain an agricultural system of diverse, family-owned and operated farms. “Policies and programs are needed that encourage rural development, promoting and maintaining the culture and values of rural communities. These should include policies that encourage a wide range of economic development strategies, especially by fostering the entrepreneurial spirit of rural people and investing in their education and training. They also should include policies that promote and support farming, support the efforts of farmers to establish co-ops and other cooperative ventures, and encourage widespread diversity in farm ownership. Limited government resources for subsidies and other forms of support should be targeted to small and moderate-sized farms, especially minority-owned farms, to help them through difficult times caused by changes in global agricultural markets or weather patterns that destroy crops. Agricultural subsidies often go to a few large producers, while smaller family farms struggle to survive. Rather than simply rewarding production, which can lead to surpluses and falling prices, government resources should reward environmentally sound and sustainable farming practices. Because of rising land prices, the cost of sophisticated equipment, and the difficulty of making a living, government resources are also needed to help new farmers and ranchers enter the field of agriculture.” (From 2002 Pastoral Statement, For I was Hungry And You Gave Me Food)
While the Conference is encouraged by the Administration’s effort to reduce the amount of subsidy payments to large corporate farms, we are also disappointed by the apparent effort to cut farm programs that have proven effective in assisting small and moderate-sized farms. USCCB and NCRLC staff will be assessing the President’s budget proposal in the light of Conference principles and priorities as articulated in When I Was Hungry.
As part of the final budget resolution for 2006, it now appears very likely that sometime this summer, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees will be forced to re-open the 2002 Farm Bill in order to make adjustments that will result in $3 billion in savings from FY06 to FY10. Those mandated adjustments will probably include $173 million in the 2006 agriculture budget and could include cuts to major programs such as food stamps, farm payments, and conservation. The Conference is a strong supporter of continued funding levels for both food stamps and for conservation programs, and has long supported common-sense adjustments in the farm-subsidy program to protect America’s family farmers while creating a more just marketplace for poor farmers in developing countries. Sen. Grassley (R-IA) introduced a bill called the Rural America Preservation Act which would place a real limit on the amount of direct federal funding any single entity can receive and to close loopholes that currently allow the largest farms to receive massive government payments. On April 1, 2005, Bishops DiMarzio and Ricard, Chairman of the Domestic and International Policy Committees, wrote to Senator Grassley endorsing S. 385.
However, based on public comments made by the Chairmen of the two committees to date, House Chairman Goodlatte’s (R-VA) proposal for consideration by the House Ag Committee is likely to include heavy savings from the food stamp program and some cuts from conservation and perhaps other non-commodity areas of the farm bill. Senate Chairman Chambliss (R-GA), on the other hand, projects a mark-up vehicle that could include cuts in all areas, including commodities, conservation, food stamps and possibly others, provided that any reduction in commodity spending does not come from payment limitation reform or presumably any other mechanism that would force the largest farms to make any sacrifice.
It is in this context that Senator Grassley and others will bring forward an amendment to decrease or eliminate cuts to food stamps and conservation by passing a payment limitation reform amendment, bringing about the long-anticipated major farm policy showdown of the year. This promises to be an extremely contentious debate and should take the rest of the legislative session to resolve.
The Agricultural Jobs, Opportunities and Benefits Act of 2005 (AgJobs Bill) was introduced in February in the Senate as S.359 and in the House of Representatives as H.R. 884.The AgJOBS Bill was substantially the same as the version introduced in 2003, which the USCCB supports. Senators Larry Craig (R.-Idaho) and Edward Kennedy (D.-MA), submitted the legislation as an amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill that the Senate debated during mid-April. To obtain a vote on the AgJOBS amendment, AgJOBS supporters first had to obtain 60 votes to prevent a filibuster and end debate on AgJOBS. Unfortunately, supporters were only able to obtain 53 votes so the amendment was tabled indefinitely. However, the demonstration of a majority in support of AgJOBS was significant. In addition, it appears very possible to obtain 60 votes in the future because several Senators indicated that their opposition was largely based on adding an immigration amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill. The UFW and agribusiness groups supporting the bill, along with the Senators who lead the campaign, have vowed to continue to try and pass AgJOBS.
For Further Information
Andy Rivas 202-541-3190; (fax) 202-541-3339; firstname.lastname@example.org Robert Gronski, NCRLC, 515-270-2634; email@example.com.