It's October and on Capitol Hill that means the talk is all about budgets ... specifically, how much money is there to spend and who gets it.
Debate on money matters will grow increasingly testy. The feds need to fund hurricane disaster relief, plus the war on terror. And both the White House and the Republican leadership in Congress say that will happen through spending cuts, not tax increases.
That prospect has many in farm country looking over their shoulders. Congress already has been ordered to trim farm program spending over the next five years ... and this week Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns was sharply critical of the farm subsidies his agency hands out. He said the payments are skewed to a small number of large farms ... are capable of driving down commodity prices ... and are open to challenge from U.S. trade partners.
Against that backdrop, lawmakers are mulling farm program cuts that eventually may soar well above the original target.
The plan by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss would reduce farmers' payments by 2.5 percent across the board. That's half the 5 percent the Bush administration sought earlier this year. The conservation cuts would limit the number of acres farmers can enroll in programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers not to till highly erodible land.
The Senate Agriculture Committee was scheduled to address the proposed cuts Thursday, but the session was canceled. In an explanation, Chambliss stated, "As a committee, we must participate with other committees that are cutting the budget, or we lose the right to choose our cuts when the Congress votes on budget reconciliation."
The proposed cuts to agriculture are just one way Congress hopes to shrink federal spending. Recovery costs from Hurricane Katrina are expected to top $200 billion, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remain a huge expense for the United States. Senate Republican leaders are urging committees to go above their targets for budget cuts if possible. Yet, senators like Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin say cutting income support for farmers at a time when they need it most is a double dose of bad news for rural America. He says farmers already are facing record energy costs, in addition to declining prices for their crops.
Some Republican lawmakers agree, saying they hope to achieve savings by spreading the reductions across a wide range of commodities. They claim the 2.5 percent cuts would affect all payments and marketing loan gains for producers of corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, cotton and other subsidized crops; as well as dairy.
A rescheduling of this week's Senate Agriculture Committee meeting has not been set.