Democrats and Republicans constantly clash over how much Americans should pay in taxes, but senators from both parties managed to agree Wednesday that wealthy farmers shouldn't pocket millions in conservation subsidies from the federal government, voting to end the payments as part of a five-year farm bill.
Offered by Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, the amendment was one of dozens lawmakers have been working through this week with the aim of passing the $970 billion legislation funding food stamps, crop subsidies and conservation programs before the current farm bill expires at the end of September.
Passed on a bipartisan 63-36 vote, the Coburn amendment would block the federal government from rewarding farmers who agree to limit their land use for conservation purposes if the farmers earn at least $1 million annually.
Even though the subsidies technically are capped for millionaires, the USDA frequently has waived that, paying out $89 million to wealthy farmers in the past two years. The payments are a waste of federal dollars, Mr. Coburn said, charging that most of the farmers would follow the conservation practices anyway.
"There's nothing wrong with conservation programs, but most often these payments are paid in addition to what people are going to do anyway," he said.
Slogging their way through the massive bill, legislators tacked on all sorts of amendments, mandating national dietary guidelines for pregnant women and children from birth until age 2, providing insurance for organic crops and directing the FDA to research ways to improve poultry and livestock feed.
They also approved 66-33 an amendment sponsored by Mr. Coburn and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, that would trim federal subsidies to help buy crop insurance for farmers earning more than $750,000.
Expected to pass the Senate on Thursday, the legislation reduces spending by $23.6 billion under the current farm bill by replacing direct subsidies to farmers with payments that kick in only when their yields or crop prices drop significantly, cutting waste and fraud out of the food-stamp program and consolidating conservation programs from 23 to 13.
Salivating at the prospect of rare bipartisan legislation, lawmakers originally proposed several hundred amendments, but Senate leaders were able to whittle them down to 73 earlier this week.
Some amendments were unrelated to farming, such as one offered by Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, to block the president from sending food assistance to North Korea, which lawmakers defeated.
And while the bill itself has strong bipartisan backing, some Republicans objected to the fact that the bulk of it — nearly 80 percent — deals with the food-stamp program.
Lawmakers combined farm and food-stamp legislation into one bill decades ago for pragmatic reasons. But now that the food-stamp program has expanded massively, with 1 in 7 Americans benefiting from it, Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, said it should be considered separately from the farming provisions, making an unsuccessful attempt to send it back to committee.
"It recognizes the reality that what we have in front of us is not really a farm bill, but a food-stamp bill," he said. "I think it's more appropriate to split these bills in two so the food-stamp bill and the farm bill will get more scrutiny and there will be more debate."
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat and lead sponsor of the farm bill, strongly objected, pointing to the bill's subsidy reforms and deficit reductions.
"I think after all the hard work we've been doing, I'm not sure we want to do it twice this year on a farm bill," she said. "These are major reforms."
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