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Idle land payments debated in Washington, D.C.

posted on March 10, 2000


IN WASHINGTON, THE CORPS OF ENGINEERS HAS BEEN ATTEMPTING TO SHORE UP CREDIBILITY LOST TO CHARGES OF INTERNAL FRAUD. A WHISTLEBLOWER WITHIN THE CORPS SAYS HE WAS ORDERED BY CORPS OFFICIALS TO PHONY UP AN ANALYSIS OF A BILLION DOLLAR EXPANSION PROJECT ON THE UPPER MISSISSIPPI AND ILLINOIS RIVERS TO MAKE IT LOOK MORE COST-EFFECTIVE. THE FEDERAL OFFICE OF SPECIAL COUNSEL CONCLUDED THE CORPS PROBABLY DID VIOLATE THE LAW. A SPECIAL INVESTIGATION HAS BEEN ORDERED. IN THE MEANTIME CORPS OFFICIALS ARE DENYING ANY WRONGDOING, ARGUING THE STUDY IS "A WORK IN PROGRESS." THAT MAY BECOME A MANTRA ON CAPITOL HILL. BIG TICKET CORPS PROJECTS HAVE LONG BEEN POPULAR WITH MEMBERS OF CONGRESS.

ANOTHER SECTOR OF CONGRESS, THE HOUSE AGRICULTURE COMMITTEE, WAS ON THE ROAD THIS WEEK, HEARING THE THOUGHTS OF FARM CONSTITUENTS. THIS WEEK, FARMERS ON THE SOUTHERN PLAINS WERE PITCHING AN IDEA THAT'S GAINING MOMENTUM AS THE LATEST BEST ALTERNATIVE TO LOW CROP PRICES.

THEY CALL IT "FLEXIBLE FALLOW." THE IDEA IS THAT GOVERNMENT PRICE SUPPORTS TO FARMERS GET PROGRESSIVELY HIGHER AS THEY IDLE MORE AND MORE LAND. BY SOME ESTIMATES, IT COULD MEAN UP TO A 30 PERCENT GAIN IN FARM PAYMENTS.

A PAID LAND DIVERSION BY ANY OTHER NAME, "FLEXIBLE FALLOW" WOULD HAVE LESS GOVERNMENT CONTROL THAN PAST SIMILAR PROGRAMS. BANDIED ABOUT IN CONGRESS UNDER VARIOUS NAMES OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES, THE NOTION OF FLEXIBLE FALLOW NEVER GAINED OFFICIAL MOMENTUM FOR TWO REASONS: IT'S DIFFICULT TO ESTIMATE ITS COST TO TAXPAYERS ... AND IT'S UNCLEAR IF IT WOULD SUFFICIENTLY CUT PRODUCTION. FARMERS LAST WERE PAID TO IDLE LAND IN 1983.

FLEXIBLE FALLOW WAS PUSHED THIS WEEK BY FARMERS AT THE FIRST OF 10 CONGRESSIONAL HEARINGS BEING STAGED TO CONSIDER REFORM OF THE 1996 FARM LAW.

AT THE HEARING IN LUBBOCK, TEXAS, FARMERS AND RANCHERS ALSO CALLED FOR ELIMINATING THE CAP ON HOW MUCH MONEY THE CAN COLLECT FROM THE GOVERNMENT. AS PART OF AN EMERGENCY FARM AID PACKAGE LAST YEAR, CONGRESS EFFECTIVELY DOUBLED TO $230,000 A YEAR THE AMOUNT FARMERS COULD GET IN DIRECT SUBSIDIES, MARKETING LOANS OR LOAN DEFICIENCY PAYMENTS. GROWERS CAN DOUBLE THAT $230,000 THROUGH PARTNERSHIPS OR BE DEVELOPING A WEB OF OPERATIVES WITH RELATIVES TO GAIN THE MAXIMUM AMOUNT OF FEDERAL MONEY POSSIBLE FROM THEIR LAND.

THE CURRENT FARM PROGRAM SCALED BACK CROP SUBSIDIES IN LIEU OF DIMINISHING ANNUAL FIXED PAYMENTS. THE INTENT WAS TO WEAN FARMERS FROM FEDERAL SUPPORTS. BUT CONGRESS HAS SPENT MORE THAN $15 BILLION DOLLARS OVER THE PAST TWO YEARS IN EMERGENCY AID TO FARMERS TO COMPENSATE FOR LOW COMMODITY PRICES. USDA PREDICTS FARM INCOME WILL DROP ANOTHER $7.6 BILLION DOLLARS THIS YEAR.

Tags: agriculture Congress Farm Bill news politics Washington D.C.