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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.

Agriculture lobbyists also fret that budget talks could complicate reauthorization of the farm bill, slated for next year. The budget deal could simply cap subsidies overall and leave it up to the Congressional Agriculture committees to work out the details. But negotiators could also spell out specific subsidy cuts, effectively beginning the process of the farm bill rewrite.

“We have some real concerns that a group like that is actually determining the legislation,” said Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of Congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, a leading agriculture industry group. The federation sent its own letter to budget negotiators earlier this month.

Whoever ends up writing the farm bill will have less money to work with. The House in mid-June approved a fiscal 2012 agriculture appropriations bill that, among other provisions, cut mandatory funding by close to $2 billion. Acknowledging the inevitability of cuts, the House Agriculture Committee has kicked off a series of subcommittee hearings framed as program audits.

“This farm bill will be developed under a very different fiscal climate than recent farm bills,” House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas said in an email. “Obviously, there is going to be no new money. Every program in every title will be on the table, and we will have to make some difficult decisions.”

Of course, farmers still have plenty of loyal allies on Capitol Hill, including Lucas. The Oklahoma Republican helped beat back amendments to the agriculture appropriations bill authored by Flake and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) that would have limited subsidies to wealthier farmers.

Crop production and processing interests spent $19.4 million on lobbying and made $18.7 million in campaign expenditures in the 2010 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The agribusiness sector was particularly generous to members of the Congressional committees that oversee them, according to CRP, giving $7 million to members of the House Agriculture Committee and $7.2 million to Senate Agriculture Committee members.

“We’re up against a very well-funded, well-entrenched vested interest,” said Craig Cox, a senior vice president at the Environmental Working Group.

Still, the political ground under farmers has unquestionably shifted, as evidenced by calls to cut subsidies from House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Republican presidential hopeful and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, among others. Even the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation last year split from its national allies and called for an end to direct payments to farmers in the 2012 farm bill, opting instead to put the emphasis on crop insurance.

“There’s a confluence of people in both parties who are concerned about increased spending and unjustified subsidies,” Blumenauer said. He added: “The intersection of health, environment, of local economies [represents] a large and growing movement that is, I think, going to be felt politically.”

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