WASHINGTON — Advocates for tightening limits on federal farm subsidy payments rejoiced at their victory last year when their proposals were included in both the House and Senate versions of the latest farm bill.
But those hard-fought gains appear to be in danger now as members of a conference committee hammer out the final version of the legislation.
“I'm worried about it. I think it's, sadly, in trouble,” Rep. Jeff Fortenberry told The World-Herald on Tuesday.
The Lincoln Republican successfully pushed for the tighter limits in the House version, while Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, got them included by the Senate.
Both bills would establish a hard cap on farm payments of $250,000 and tighten loopholes on who meets the requirement that subsidy recipients be “actively engaged” in the farm operation.
Farm bill supporters who favor tighter payment limits say stories of wealthy or absentee farmers collecting large payments give the whole program a black eye.
While the limits generally are backed by those in the Midwest, Southern growers tend to have larger operations and say the limits are too restrictive. It's an argument that appears to be gaining ground now in the negotiations among conference committee members, many of whom did not support the limits.
Fortenberry said it appears that even conference committee members who are sympathetic to tighter limits have not championed the provision.
What's clear is that the fight continues.
Grassley has been spotted recently on the House side of the Capitol, working House members in the hallway on the payment limits issue. He told The World-Herald that he has written letters to House leaders including Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., urging them to exert their influence to keep the payment limits in the final version.
Both Grassley and Fortenberry expressed outrage this week at word that the conference committee could roll back or eliminate their language, thereby reversing what was agreed to by majorities on both sides of the Capitol.
Grassley said that with the House and Senate language nearly identical, it should have a “do-not-touch” label on it.
“It should be non-negotiable,” Grassley said.
Fortenberry said the whole affair underscores why Nebraska has a unicameral legislature where there's no such thing as a conference committee. He said the ongoing process on the farm bill is “not in accord with the spirit of the republic.”
Work on a new farm bill has dragged on for many months as lawmakers tangled over a number of hot-button issues, including food stamps, but some think an end could be in sight. The Senate approved $4 billion in cuts to food stamps, while the House opted for about 10 times that amount of cuts. The final version is expected to cut about $8 billion, but those writing it have reason not to release the specifics just yet.
That's because Congress is about to leave for a weeklong recess.
“I think there's a farm bill, I really do,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb. “I think they just don't want to lay it out there for the next couple weeks and have it shot at.”
One consideration for farm bill negotiators is that they could lose some votes if they eliminate the limits altogether from the final version. For example, Grassley said that even though the limits are not the biggest part of the bill, he would not be able to support the legislation if they are removed.
He said it's “ridiculous” to have 10 percent of the nation's farms receiving 70 percent or more of the farm program's benefits.
“When you're cutting food stamps, how would anybody have guts enough to say we ought to keep these loopholes open for rich farmers?” Grassley said.