Guest Commentary

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Farm bill negotiators should take advantage of the moment

Chuck Grassley, U.S. Senator, R-Iowa

Farming isnít for the faint of heart. No matter how hard you work or how much you plan, sometimes you come up short. Bad weather, natural disasters and fluctuating market prices are beyond the control of farmers and those in the agricultural business. Those unforeseen challenges endanger their bottom lines.

President Trumpís ability to finalize a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico will go a long way in providing increased certainty for rural America. For months, Iíve been saying farmers want trade, not aid. This newly negotiated deal will provide farmers with the markets they need.

With lingering tariffs on Chinese and European markets, and the constant threat of natural disasters, thereís also a great need for an improved farm bill.

Right now, the 2018 farm bill is at a standstill in conference committee. Iím not a negotiating member on the legislation, but Iím in regular contact with my colleagues who are. What Iím hearing about the billís progress is troubling, to say the least.

The purpose of the farm bill is to provide farmers with a safety net during unforeseeable events. It sets our nationís food policy and helps ensure food security in the United States. The purpose is not to give unlimited subsidies to people who donít need them, yet that seems to be one of the barriers preventing the 2018 farm bill from passing out of conference committee.

Special interest groups working on behalf of certain agriculture commodities have been wildly successful in their lobbying efforts to maintain egregious loopholes that allow the wealthiest farmers, and non-farmers, to receive unlimited farm subsidies. Some negotiators appear unwilling to stand up against these interests and compromise in good faith with American taxpayers and the needs of young and beginning farmers in mind.

Farm bill conferees shouldnít maintain the status quo of allowing multimillion-dollar farming entities to take advantage of existing legislative loopholes that hamstring the next generation of American farmers, such as the Ďactively engagedí loophole.

My payment limit amendment, which passed with broad support in the Senate farm bill, would close the Ďactively engagedí loophole that allows people who donít work on farms to get substantial subsidies at taxpayersí expense. Currently, this loophole pays out approximately $2.7 billion to more than 95,000 entities according to a 2018 payment report from the U.S.

Government Accountability Office. Each person who qualifies as actively engaged can get up to $125,000 per year in farm subsidies. If they are married, their spouse automatically becomes eligible for $125,000 as well.

Thereís bipartisan agreement that the food-stamp program could be reformed in a few areas and helping Americans move into the workforce and up the economic ladder should be the goal of all anti-poverty programs. However, how can anyone reconcile tightening eligibility for food stamps for the less fortunate while turning a blind eye to the loopholes that millionaires exploit.

The farm and nutrition bill is important policy for many people, but why should staunch supporters of food stamps accept less if millionaire farmers get to keep their golden goose from taxpayers? We ought to apply scrutiny and end abuses and excesses in all programs. The nationís $21 trillion debt isnít getting any smaller.

I recently sent a bipartisan, bicameral letter with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Reps. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and Ron Kind, D-Wis., to Agriculture Committee leaders from the House and Senate. The letter urged them to maintain the payment limit provisions passed by the Senate earlier this year. This commonsense reform has overwhelming bipartisan and bicameral support. It helps young and beginning farmers while being respectful of taxpayer dollars. Thereís no reason to drop it from the final 2018 farm bill other than to satisfy the desires of some commodity groups looking to enhance their own bottom lines at the expense of hardworking farmers and middle-class families.

The farm bill is an $860 billion spending bill that impacts every single American. Congress should not be in the business of picking winners and losers, especially if winners are determined by who can afford highly paid lobbyists to advocate on their behalf to politicians in positions of power and influence.

I urge my colleagues on the conference committee to keep the purpose of the farm bill at the forefront of their decision-making and to close current farm bill loopholes that cripple young, beginning and small farmers while rewarding those who donít need assistance.


Grassley is the senior senator from Iowa and is a member of the Agriculture Committee