WASHINGTON – Under orders to cut agriculture spending by $3 billion, Republicans in Congress have proposed reducing food programs for the poor by $574 million and conservation programs by $1 billion, The Associated Press has learned.
The proposal by the chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (search), R-Ga., also would cut payments to farmers by 2.5 percent across the board.
The plan faces hostility from congressional Democrats and other critics who say the cuts would hurt food stamps and conservation programs.
Payments to farmers would fall by $1.145 billion over five years. But that is considerably less severe than what President Bush (search) had proposed. Bush had sought a 5 percent reduction in payments, plus a far-reaching plan for capping payments that would cut billions more dollars from subsidies collected by large farm operations.
The AP obtained a summary of the budget-cutting plan, which was scheduled for a vote Thursday in Chambliss' committee. Congress ordered the $3 billion in cuts in a budget outline passed this year.
Chambliss wants the cuts in farmers' payments to be distributed evenly, spokesman Keith Williams said. "All of the commodities have to be treated fairly," he said.
Leading Republicans indicated this year they would rather target food stamps and conservation programs than simply make the deep cuts that Bush was seeking. The administration backed off its plan to cap payments in April after strong opposition from farmers. Cotton and rice growers would bear the brunt of payment limits.
The $1.05 billion in conservation cuts would trim programs that pay farmers to stop farming certain land or to change their practices to help the environment.
"Subsidies get $20 billion a year. Conservation gets less than $4 billion — to expect farmers who want to help the environment to shoulder as heavy a load as fat-cat cotton producers is terrible policy," said Scott Faber, spokesman for the Washington-based Environmental Defense.
Chambliss' spokesman said environmental groups are being vocal to boost their membership.
"They are people whose business it is to cast this in the worst way," Williams said of conservation programs. "There's not an impact on the individual producer or landowner."
Sen. Byron Dorgan (search), D-N.D., said he and Sen. Charles Grassley (search), R-Iowa, are still pushing for Bush's payment limits, which would eliminate loopholes that let bigger growers collect unlimited payments.
Effective payment limits would shave spending enough to spare nutrition and conservation programs, said Chuck Hassebrook, director of the Lyons, Neb.-based Center for Rural Affairs.
"All they really meant was, `We're not going to cut the big guys; we're going to cut family farms and conservation,'" he said.
The cuts in payments are not enough to aid U.S. negotiators in global trade talks being held by the World Trade Organization, said Ken Cook, president of Environmental Working Group. Developing countries are insisting that wealthy nations cut subsidies in exchange for access to their markets.
"It is a slap in the face to the poorest countries in the world," Cook said. "The only thing U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman will get out of this round of negotiations is frequent flier miles."
The $574 million cut in food stamps would come from restricting access to this benefit for certain families that receive other government assistance. The restriction would shut an estimated 300,000 people out of the program.
Yet the need for help is soaring from the recent hurricanes, said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (search), the senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Farmers are facing record energy prices, dropping prices for their crops and the harvest, he added.
"Cutting income support for farmers at the time when they need it most is a double dose of bad news for rural America," Harkin said.
Some Republican lawmakers were also concerned. "We need to find a way to achieve savings without hurting farmers," said Sen. John Thune (search), R-S.D.
The 2.5 percent payment cuts would affect all payments and marketing loan gains for producers of corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, cotton and other subsidized crops as well as dairy.