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Forum editorial: No need to reopen farm bill

Congress should not reopen the 2008 farm bill simply because President Barack Obama wants to put a subsidy cap on big farmers. One idea tossed out was ending direct payments to farmers with annual incomes of $500,000 or more. The president mentio...

Congress should not reopen the 2008 farm bill simply because President Barack Obama wants to put a subsidy cap on big farmers. One idea tossed out was ending direct payments to farmers with annual incomes of $500,000 or more. The president mentioned caps in his address to Congress last week, raising eyebrows among farmers, agribusiness organizations and farm-state senators.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said he did not want to tinker with the new farm bill. If the ag committee chairman says leave it alone, it will be left alone.

That's not to say that capping direct payments to the nation's biggest farmers and farm corporations is a bad idea. It's a notion that has been around for at least 20 years, championed for much of that time by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who certainly has been a friend of family farmers. But Congress, whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans, has been loath to cut subsidies for big farms and ranches. An attempt to place meaningful caps on payments to the biggest operators failed during the debate on the 2008 bill. Indeed, Peterson struggled mightily with the issue in his committee because congressmen and senators representing states with cotton and rice farmers were having none of it. Without their support the entire farm bill was at risk.

The new farm bill garnered almost unprecedented bipartisan support in both houses of Congress last year. Despite fierce opposition from the Bush administration, the bill passed easily. When the president vetoed the legislation, he was overridden with ease. The bill was favored for several reasons, not the least of which was lobbying by Democratic and Republican farm-state governors, including North Dakota's John Hoeven. Most farm organizations, no matter their political tilt, supported the bill. It gained traction with help from conservationists, school nutrition experts and rural economic development advocates. It built on the previous popular farm bill by renewing a counter-cyclical market-based subsidy mechanism and expanding conservation and research titles.

Even if the president prevailed in convincing Congress to reopen the bill and cap subsidies - very unlikely - the savings would be minuscule when compared to the president's stimulus package and budget. If all subsidies to farmers suddenly disappeared, it would have no appreciable effect on the overall economy. The direct farm support portion of the farm bill is relatively small, but it is important for the farm sector.

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The 2008 farm bill should be left to do its work. It should be seen as part of an economic stimulus for production agriculture, agribusiness, alternative energy (wind, biomass), and rural America. There is no pressing need to tinker with a farm law that works.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper's Editorial Board

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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