Farm Bill Payment Limits: Part 1

This post was cross-posted on the blog where we are participating in a series of farm bill blog posts.

For over 20 years progressive farm activists have fought to stop government subsidies that destroy family farming. The current system of unlimited subsidy checks for large farms increases land prices, puts family size farms at a disadvantage, and ultimately undercuts rural communities.

Politicians from rural areas have been slow to recognize this, however. Instead, rural politicians wax eloquent about saving family farms while repeatedly passing farm programs that subsidize their demise.

The hypocrisy has been bipartisan.

With a few notable exceptions, northern representatives have given lip service to reforming farm programs, but folded when confronted by the opposition of large farm interests from the South. Elected officials who should know better typically justify unlimited payments as a necessary evil, to maintain the "farm coalition" and get as much money as soon as possible for farm payments.

This is a profound mistake.

Unlimited payments that subsidize large, aggressively expanding operations are a fundamental cause of family farm decline. They exacerbate the family farm decline that farm programs were supposed to address.

Progressive farm and rural leaders continue to push for farm program payment limits, and the issue continues to emerge during farm bill years.

The most recent effort played out in March of this year when Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) introduced an amendment to the budget resolution bill calling for limiting subsidies to the nation's largest farms.

The Grassley-Dorgan amendment was a nonbinding resolution calling on the Agriculture Committee to cap farm subsidies at $250,000 per year. A cap of $250,000 means that family farmers would still get the support they need, but big farms would no longer have the unfair advantage of nearly unlimited government checks. Grassley-Dorgan called for the money saved to be reinvested in conservation, rural development, and nutrition programs.

In the end, Senators Grassley and Dorgan withdrew the amendment at the request of the Senate leadership. Senate leaders had counted the votes and concluded the amendment would pass, but feared it would cause southern Senators to block passage of the entire federal budget. To get them to pull the amendment, Senate leadership promised a vote on Grassley-Dorgan in the upcoming farm bill debate.

In my opinion, Senator Grassley introduced the amendment specifically to secure this outcome.

Now they are back. The Grassley-Dorgan proposal has returned as Senate Bill 1486. The bill would cap payments to any one farmer at $250,000 per year and close the loopholes that currently exist. Look for future posts that will explain some of the details of this proposal, why it is a key part of progressive reform, and updates on the bill's status.

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