- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 6, 2010

Lawmakers drafting a sweeping farm bill signed by President George W. Bush in 2008 promised it would slash government payments to wealthy farmers. But two years later, little appears to have changed.

Data made public Wednesday showed that the wealthiest farmers in the country are still receiving the bulk of government cash, despite claims from lawmakers that reforms would put more money in the hands of smaller farms. At the same time, exemptions written into the bill have made it more difficult for the public to find out who is receiving what.

In approving the $290 billion bill, Congress included several provisions aimed at cutting government subsidies to the wealthiest farmers. Lawmakers sought to eliminate a loophole that allowed farmers to collect higher payments and they set income limits for those who received subsidies. Though those new laws may have cut down on payments to some farmers, others have found ways around them.

Such subsidies to the nation’s largest farms are a mainstay of congressional politics and an eternal frustration to those who want to eliminate them. A powerful coalition of farm-state members of Congress have successfully defended their constituents’ interests in farm bill after farm bill.

“They are well dug in,” said Ken Cook, head of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington advocacy group that has long pushed for more equitable distribution of farm subsidies. “They have a strong interest in defending the status quo.”

Mr. Cook’s organization publishes a database every several years based on Agriculture Department records. The group’s most recent database, released Wednesday, shows just 10 percent of farmers received 62 percent of federal farm payments in 2009, roughly the same amount as in 2007 and 2008 - before the farm bill took effect.

One reason for this may be that some farmers have found ways around the new rules. Those who exceed the income limits, established with the aim of eliminating subsidies for millionaires, could speed up purchases of equipment or otherwise adjust their income. They may also add family members to their farm corporations to qualify for higher payments.

Randolph Rogers, a Hartsville, S.C., farmer who saw his subsidy payments drop after the 2008 farm bill passed, said he recouped some of the money by adding his children and his wife to his farm corporation, called Rogers Bros.

“The rules have changed and we have to change with them,” said Mr. Rogers, who grows cotton, soybeans, peanuts, corn and wheat. “We don’t have a lot of choice.”

According to the Environmental Working Group’s database, Rogers Bros. received $807,299 in federal subsidies last year, placing the company 56th on the list of top recipients. But Mr. Rogers says those who want to change the way payments are made don’t understand the high cost of farming.

“Everybody just acts like we just put our money in our pockets,” he said. “But it takes that money to operate.”

Members of Congress declined to talk about how their bill has performed. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin C. Peterson, Minnesota Democrat, and former Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, the two lead negotiators of the 2008 farm bill, were unavailable for comment, according to their spokesmen. Current Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, would say only that the bill “made great strides to improving farm programs.”

Mr. Harkin has long pushed to lower the limit on what an individual farmer can receive so smaller farms could share in more of the money. Spokesman Grant Gustafson said, however, there was “strong resistance to reducing substantially the actual limitations on payments.”

Much of this resistance often comes from Southern members of Congress who represent cotton and rice farmers. Those crops are more expensive to grow, and Southern lawmakers have for decades defended higher farm subsidies.

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