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Budget Talks Could Be De Facto Farm Bill Rewrite

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Rep. Earl Blumenauer is already pushing for cuts to agriculture subsidies and believes he has a growing coalition of supporters for his position.

Federal belt-tightening has worried Washington lobbyists across the board, but perhaps no sector is more nervous these days than the agriculture industry.

Several factors have thrown farmers and their Washington representatives into a defensive crouch. Bipartisan talks on a budget deal to cut spending and raise the debt ceiling have specifically targeted agricultural subsidies. The budget for the soon-to-expire farm bill, which funds an array of nutrition, energy and agriculture programs, has already been slashed. And growing public concern over commodity prices, nutrition and food safety seems to make agriculture a prime target.

“The mood or sense of Congress right now is: Cut now, ask questions later,” said Alan Kemper, president of the American Soybean Association. Kemper’s group is rounding up farmers to help deliver to Capitol Hill the message that the nation’s farmers are already hurting from natural disasters and should not be disproportionately singled out.

But Kemper acknowledged that lawmakers aren’t giving farmers much of a warm reception these days: “They’re not in a mood to listen right at the present time.”

Several farm-related skirmishes are unfolding on Capitol Hill, fueled in part by the tea party movement and GOP determination to cut spending at all costs. Particularly vulnerable are the billions in direct cash subsidies that farmers receive every year, which are based on formulas rather than need. Such subsidies totaled close to $6 billion in 2010, according to the Environmental Working Group, a leading critic of the agriculture industry.

In a signal of lawmakers’ growing distaste for direct subsidies, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) will introduce legislation next week that would end direct payments to farmers outright. Flake’s move comes on the heels of a mid-June vote by a majority of Senators to cancel billions in ethanol tax credits — a strong message but not the supermajority required to kill the tax credit.

Cuts in agriculture subsidies will almost inevitably be part of whatever budget deal comes out of bipartisan negotiations between Vice President Joseph Biden and Congressional leaders to raise the debt ceiling. Cuts to commodity and crop insurance payments could total $34 billion over 10 years, agriculture lobbyists say.

Some 130 local and national agriculture industry groups wrote to negotiators in mid-June to voice “strong opposition” to any package that would “disproportionately impact” farmers and ranchers.

“We are extraordinarily concerned about the depth and timing of cuts to agricultural policies reportedly being considered for including in legislation to increase the debt limit,” stated the letter addressed to President Barack Obama, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

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