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Senate Considers Major Changes to Farm Policy


Another document long in the making: The farm bill is likely to pass the Senate before the end of the year. The Senate is moving forward on the legislation which would set agriculture policy for the next five years. And there are numerous efforts to limit traditional crop subsidies that critics say benefit a small number of big farms.

Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Action on the farm bill resumed this week after Senate leaders overcame a month-long procedural impasse and agreed to allow Democrats and Republicans to offer 20 amendments aside. The first of these would have all but scrapped the current system of farm subsidies that opponents say benefit relatively few well-off farmers. The Republican sponsor of the amendment was Richard Lugar of Indiana, himself a family farmer.

Senator RICHARD LUGAR (Republican, Indiana): This is not a great humanitarian effort. This is not save the family farmer, the low-income farmer or even the middle-income farmer. This bill is about making choices. And it's incredible to me that with all of the budgetary pressures we're facing, we would consider a bill that enriches so few individuals.

NAYLOR: Critics of the current subsidy program cite a long list of inequities - government farm payments that go to wealthy investors and big cities, payments to farmers long dead, payments that have done little to help rural America. Most farmers get no subsidies. Of the one-third who do, 10 percent get most of the money. But defenders of the current system say it provides plentiful and affordable food.

Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota says the statistics used by critics are misleading.

Senator KENT CONRAD (Democrat, North Dakota): To suggest the vast majority of farms are being mistreated by the farm program is simply false. It's not true. It's not true, it's not fair, it's not accurate.

NAYLOR: Lugar's amendment failed 37-to-58. Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire didn't have much more luck. He tried to strip from the bill subsidies for asparagus farmers, and a new program aimed at helping farmers and ranchers manage stress.

Senator JUDD GREGG (Republican, New Hampshire): We have a stress program for the person who runs a local restaurant. We have a stress program for the person who runs a local gas station. All of these are entrepreneurial undertakings. Entrepreneurship involves stress, but we don't need to create a stress network to address it. This is an earmark, pure and simple - a creation of an earmark in a bill, which is filled with earmarks.

NAYLOR: But Gregg's efforts came up short as well. Two amendments that may well pass will be voted on tomorrow. One would place a limit of $250,000 on the amount of subsidies a farm couple could receive. Another would bar farmers with income over $750,000 from getting any subsidies. Both of those amendments will require 60 votes to pass.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, notes it's difficult to overcome entrenched interests and change the farm bill.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa; Chairman, Senate Agriculture Committee): Farm bills don't take sharp turns. I always liken it - it's like a railroad train. You know, you bend the tracks a little bit. And that's what we're trying to do bit by bit on this.

NAYLOR: If, in fact, the Senate does approve the farm bill, it will have to be reconciled with a different version approved by the House. That won't happen until next year, which means Congress will have to temporarily extend the current farm bill to give farmers some certainty as they head into the spring planting season.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

NORRIS: You can find an overview of the farm bill's key controversies and why you should care at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.