Springfield State Journal Register

May 13, 2006

Congress, Bush at odds on farm aid
20 House districts would get most of $1.6 billion


WASHINGTON - Congress and the Bush administration are at odds over $1.6 billion in emergency aid to farmers that senators included last week in a $109 billion funding bill for the war in Iraq and hurricane victims.

While Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and other farm-state lawmakers say the aid is critical for farmers struggling from last year's drought and rising fuel costs, President Bush has threatened to veto the bill because it's $14 billion more than he requested.

In addition, Agriculture Department officials and several watchdog groups complain that the emergency funding would be paid out only to a favored few.

More than half the $1.6 billion would go to farmers in 20 congressional districts, including those of Illinois Reps. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, and Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, according to the Environmental Working Group.

That's because the emergency aid would be handed out to last year's farm payment recipients - amounting to about 30 percent of what each received in 2005 - perpetuating what critics see as an unfair distribution system. The money would be in addition to annual subsidies.

"Even in the congressional districts where you have a substantial amount of the money going in ... it's still not going to go to all of the farmers by any means," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. "An average of 38 percent of the farms in those top 20 districts will be left out. So even within that there are serious inequities."

But Illinois Farm Bureau officials say the funding would go where it's needed the most.

The Midwest, where farmers grow many of the crops favored under the current system, was dramatically affected by increases in fuel prices, low crop yields due to last year's drought and shipment disruptions because of Hurricane Katrina, said Chuck Spencer, the bureau's director of national legislation.

"So I don't know that there's any surprise about it being the largest target for relief," he said.

The $1.6 billion is part of a $4 billion farm aid package included in the emergency funding bill, which the Senate passed last week. It now goes to a House-Senate conference committee.

While the House version didn't include the farm aid, House Agriculture Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has said he favors some emergency aid for farmers.

Durbin met with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in late April in an attempt to persuade him to support the extra aid.

Illinois farmers suffered $433 million in losses as a direct result of the drought, Durbin said. He also noted that an average, 1,000-acre farm, costs $24,000 more to operate than in 2001, an increase he attributed to higher fuel, fertilizer and pesticide costs.

Local House members offered more cautious support.

LaHood said that last year he supported emergency help for farmers that wasn't included in the House bill. Relief money included by the Senate was rejected by House leaders in conference.

"While I still believe our farmers need assistance to help recover from drought damage, I believe we must find a way to pay for it and not just heap it on the national debt," LaHood said in a statement issued by his office.

Shimkus noted that farmers can't pass on the increased costs of fuel and fertilizer.

The arguments provide a glimpse of the upcoming battle over renewing the current farm law.

The Environmental Working Group and Environmental Defense have joined with the conservative Heritage Foundation and the libertarian Cato Institute to push for major reforms in the system and to fight efforts to extend the current farm program beyond its scheduled expiration in 2007.

"Even though we're told that farm subsidies are to help small, struggling family farmers, the reality is that farm subsidies are America's largest corporate welfare program," said Brian Riedl, a senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation.

The reformers argue that the current farm program is unfair to farmers, consumer and taxpayers. Most of the federal crop subsidies now go to those who grow just a few crops, such as corn, wheat, rice and cotton.

The Environmental Working Group also argues that large commercial farm operations receive a disproportionate share. In Illinois about 58 percent of the federal dollars in 2004 went to just 10 percent of the recipients, according to the group's database.

This week, two former agriculture secretaries - Republican Clayton Yeutter and Democrat Dan Glickman - endorsed recommendations by the American Farmland Trust to refocus the farm program so that it helps more farmers and livestock producers, creates incentives for protecting the environment and avoids challenges from trading partners.

Dori Meinert can be reached at (202) 737-7686 or Dori.meinert@copleydc.com.