- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2012

A bipartisan coalition of senators representing almost a third of the chamber is pressing party leaders to include a long-delayed farm subsidy and food stamp bill in any overall package to avoid the looming “fiscal cliff.”

Twenty-three Democrats, nine Republicans and an independent last week sent a joint letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, urging the pair to immediately take up the five-year, $500 billion “farm bill” the Senate approved in June.

“With each passing day, the difficulty of enacting a farm bill before the end of this Congress grows,” the senators wrote. “Congress must do the responsible thing and pass a full, five-year reform farm bill. Accordingly, we urge you to consider folding in the Senate’s strong bipartisan bill in any end-of-year package.”

Supporters of the move say farm bill savings could be used to help mitigate potential damage to the economy if expiring George W. Bush-era tax breaks and cuts to defense and domestic programs kick in as scheduled early next month — a scenario dubbed the fiscal cliff.

But farm bill critics, who view the multiyear subsidy package as among the most egregious examples of federal pork, are pushing back at the idea of slipping such a measure — or even components of one — into any larger deficit-reduction legislation.

“It would [be] unconscionable for our nation’s leaders to bypass the House and attach a $1 trillion farm bill to legislation designed to right the nation’s finances,” said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a Washington nonprofit that advocates for health, environmental and government subsidy reforms.

“At a time when our nation’s leaders are asking ordinary Americans to contribute to deficit reduction, it is simply shocking that same bill, the fiscal cliff bill, might even give more subsidies to farm millionaires and might further expose taxpayers to liability for farm payments,” he said.

A coalition of fiscally conservative groups also this month sent Congress a letter urging against such action, saying “budget gimmicks and back room legislating is part of what got the country into this fiscal mess.”

“Taxpayers deserve a simple and transparent solution to the fiscal cliff, not a bloated, over priced farm bill,” said the letter, which was sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform, FreedomWorks, and Taxpayers for Common Sense, among other groups.

While the 2008 farm bill expired at the end of September without a replacement, coverage for most programs extends throughout the 2012 crop year. Some agriculture programs, such as crop insurance, also have continued under a separate authorization.

And funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — formerly known as food stamps and which typically is a part of farm bills — was included in a six-month stopgap bill to fund the federal government that Congress passed in September.

But as the 2012 harvest rolls to an end, farmers and ranchers are gearing up for the 2013 crop season. In some parts of the country farmers already have seeded their 2013 winter wheat.

Dairy farmers say they are already feeling a pinch, as the Department of Agriculture’s Milk Income Loss Contract Program, which compensates dairy producers when domestic milk prices fall below a specified level, expired after Sept. 30.

The bipartisan Senate bill would trim an estimated $23 billion in agricultural subsidies, land-conservation spending and other programs over the next decade, compared with the most recent farm bill.

The Republican-controlled House rejected the Senate measure and has failed to pass their own farm bill. The House Agriculture Committee in July passed a version that calls for $35 billion in savings, though partisan and intraparty bickering have prevented it from receiving a full floor vote.

Both proposals call for cuts to the $80 billion-a-year SNAP initiative.

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