Lawmakers reject Obama plan to cut farm aid

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The president demanded that there be no explicit earmarks in the $787 billion economic stimulus package passed last week, but the same discipline is not carrying over to the regular appropriations bills.

The omnibus spending bill passed by the House Wednesday contains thousands of earmarks, requested by lawmakers of both parties. The specific items funded are almost always for programs, grants or other federal projects directed to the state or district of the lawmakers requesting them.

In his Tuesday address, Mr. Obama said new spending on health care, energy and education would be matched with cuts to “education programs that don’t work,” an end to no-bid contracts in Iraq, and an assault on waste and fraud in Medicare.

But the farm payments pledge was his most specific. “In this budget, we will … end direct payments to large agribusiness that don’t need them,” Mr. Obama said.

The White House on Wednesday declined to lay out more specific budget cuts, promising they will become clear when Mr. Obama submits his 2010 budget.

Mr. Obama said all sides will have to sacrifice favored programs to bring the deficit under control, but the opposition to farm payment cuts underscores just how difficult that will be, with every program in the federal budget having support of at least some members of Congress.

The ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Frank D. Lucas of Oklahoma, said Mr. Obama didn’t seem to understand the agribusiness programs he was talking about.

“With the president last night calling for, in essence, what he referred to payments to big agribusiness - I’m not sure he really appreciates or understands the definition of that phrase,” Mr. Lucas said, noting that direct payments go to entities that own farms and grow crops, not conglomerates that process them. “If he’s referring to other things, then that’s not the direct payment program.”

He said Mr. Obama’s comments build on a speech earlier this month by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in which the former Iowa governor urged farmers not to rely on direct payments.

“It’s kind of ironic that the secretary and the president are talking about doing away with relatively small amounts of money compared with [the financial and automaker bailouts] that help assure us of the safest and most abundant food supply in the world,” said Mr. Lucas, who expressed his concern in a letter to Mr. Vilsack late Wednesday.

Jon Doggett, a vice president of public policy at the National Corn Growers Association, said the group is seeking clarification on Mr. Obama’s use of the term “agribusiness.”

“There is an adjusted gross income test that would preclude large agribusiness from getting farm program benefits,” he said. “There’s just not big corporations that own and operate farms.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture would not comment on Mr. Vilsack’s position on direct payments, and the White House declined to comment on Mr. Obama’s plan, saying the details will be released Thursday in his budget.

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama had proposed limiting direct payments to only farms with incomes of $250,000 or less. That’s just a third of the current $750,000 farm income limit set in the 2008 farm bill.

The president’s proposal this week did gain some important support.

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About the Author
Kara Rowland

Kara Rowland

Kara Rowland, White House reporter for The Washington Times, is a D.C.-area native. She graduated from the University of Virginia, where she studied American government and spent nearly all her waking hours working as managing editor of the Cavalier Daily, UVa.’s student newspaper.

Her interest in political reporting was piqued by an internship at Roll Call the summer before her ...

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