Farm bill must have payment limit reform

The farm bill is a critical piece of legislation for Iowa and the entire country. It provides a framework from which farmers can make decisions with more certainty, and serves as a necessary safety net for our farmers in the event of a natural disaster, dramatic market shifts and other unforeseeable events that would harm farming operations. Every American is impacted by the farm bill because it sets our nation’s food policy and ensures food security.

With so much at stake, Congress must get it right.

After months of discussions, the 2018 Farm Bill passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee last week. There are several pieces of this legislation I support, including the funding of the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development Program. Both programs are important because they promote American agricultural products abroad to help increase exports. These programs leverage private dollars to help farmers across the entire country.

I’m also happy that this bill includes sensible reforms to the Conservation Reserve Program, commonly known as CRP. The program has strayed from its original intent here in Iowa, where some landowners have been receiving more than $300 per acre to enroll their entire farms in CRP. That puts young and beginning farmers at a competitive disadvantage. In fact, even well-established farmers have had rented land taken away from them because it was enrolled in CRP at lucrative rates. Farmers can’t compete with the government and they shouldn’t have to. That’s why I support the reforms in the 2018 Farm Bill that should help refocus the program back to its original intent, which is to idle less productive farm land.

Crop insurance is another win in this farm bill. It’s important for Iowa farmers and farmers across the country to be assured they won’t be knocked out of business in a single blow if they’re devastated by a natural disaster.

Also included in this bill is an amendment I offered that encourages partnerships to help water and wastewater utilities find innovative and low-cost solutions to meet Clean Water Act requirements more effectively.

However, I’m extremely disappointed that one of my top priorities was not included in the 2018 Farm Bill.

I’ve been fighting for years for real and enforceable limits for farm subsidies. Currently, ten percent of farmers get more than 70 percent of the payments from the farm bill. Farm programs should provide temporary assistance in times of need, not unlimited subsidies.

One of the most flagrant loopholes Congress needs to fix deals with what it means to be “actively engaged” in a farming operation. Under current law, a designation called “Active Personal Management Only” allows people who do not work on farms to get farm subsidies of $125,000 or $250,000 for a married couple. And if the person grows a crop like peanuts, they can double those numbers again.

The loophole has eight vague ways to satisfy eligibility requirements. They include “supervision of activities” and “other management functions reasonably necessary” for farming. What’s worse, the Department of Agriculture has no way of enforcing those rules, leaving ample room for abuse.

A recent report released by the Government Accountability Office compiled a list of the 50 largest subsidy recipient entities for 2015. Collectively, the top 50 used nearly 200 extra managers to collect more farm subsidies. The GAO also noted that in 2015, American taxpayers paid out a total of $259 million through this loophole.

During the last farm bill, my payment limit legislation was passed by both the House and Senate. During conference committee, which is where any differences between the House and Senate versions of a bill are resolved, my legislation was altered, a violation of congressional rules.

Because the 2018 Farm Bill did not include payment limit reforms, I didn’t vote for its passage.

I will, however, offer an amendment on the Senate floor to include common-sense payment limits in the farm bill. Since my amendment passed in the House and Senate during the last farm bill, it should pass again. If it does, I will proudly support the bill’s final passage.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow have worked hard on a bipartisan farm bill that will help American agriculture. While there are issues that still need to be addressed, I’m hopeful that Congress can produce a farm bill that will honor its original intent and that can be justified to taxpayers.

—Sen. Chuck Grassley is a Republican from Iowa.