By Stewart Doan

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.


WASHINGTON, May 20 - The White House and key lawmakers have penciled in a significant cut in agriculture spending as part of a 10-year, $200 billion contribution to deficit reduction aimed at securing Republican support for an increase in the debt ceiling.

While none of the participants in the talks led by Vice President Joe Biden have commented publicly on which areas of the budget would be cut and by how much, Capitol Hill sources tell Agri-Pulse that negotiators are floating a $34 billion downsizing of farm programs. The savings would be achieved by eliminating direct payments to grain, soybean and cotton growers – a top goal of farm subsidy critics. A fixture of U.S. farm policy since the 1996 Freedom to Farm law, the fixed, decoupled payments – made annually regardless of market prices - have become more difficult for their backers to defend in the current era of $1 cotton, $6 corn and beans in the teens.

Alarmed by the size of farm program cuts under discussion, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich, and nine of the panel’s ten other Democrats fired off a letter Thursday evening to President Obama expressing “our serious concerns that the ongoing budget negotiations impose imprudent cuts at the expense of the real needs of rural America and the 16 million jobs that come from agriculture.”

Acknowledging that agriculture must do its part to help curb federal spending, the lawmakers committed to reduce program costs and duplication along with streamlining programs and delivery in the 2012 Farm Bill. But they warned that “unreasonable” cuts to the budget for farm bill programs would “seriously jeopardize our ability to craft a balanced new farm bill.”

In addition, they said that policy decisions regarding the farm safety net should be left up to the Agriculture Committee.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., did not sign the letter. He’s involved in the Biden-led talks, which took on a higher profile after Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., pulled out of a bipartisan effort by the so-called "Gang of Six" senators to come up with a $4 trillion deficit-cutting package.   .

“After broad consultation, we have decided to defer a budget mark-up because of the high-level bipartisan leadership negotiations that are currently underway. The results of those negotiations may need to be included in a budget resolution that would be offered in the weeks ahead,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who chairs the Budget Committee and is a member of the “gang.”

Earlier Thursday, Stabenow announced the committee will hold its first farm bill hearing on May 26. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and former USDA Chief Dan Glickman are among those scheduled to testify.

Stabenow has repeatedly stated her desire to write five-year farm legislation that Republicans on the panel can support, but the Democrats’ mention in their letter to Obama of the “extreme” budget cuts to agriculture approved by the GOP-controlled House is sure to test the limits of bipartisanship.

The House plan to shrink the deficit by $4.4 trillion over ten years would cut farm spending by $30 billion.

To see a copy of the letter click here.

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