Key senator defends deficit plan’s farm cut

A $10 billion cut in farm spending included in a deficit commission could be a taste of what’s to come for agricultural subsidies.

Sen. Kent Conrad, the North Dakota Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, acknowledged that he played a role in drafting the proposal that was part of a bipartisan commission’s plan to reduce the federal budget deficit.

Conrad said the reduction was relatively small, about 7 percent of projected farm spending over the next decade, compared to some other cuts that were included in the plan, which would reduce deficits by a total of $4 trillion. An earlier version of the plan contained a cut to farm spending that would have been three times as large on an annual basis, he noted.

“No part of he budget can be exempt” from cuts, said Conrad. “I supported this in the context of a complete plan.”

The plan didn’t get the 14 votes necessary from the 18-member commission today to ensure that the proposal would get a vote in Congress. However, the 11-7 majority did show that there is broad support for the proposals, commissioners said.

“This has the elements of what’s required and it has the sufficient size to stabilize the debt and bring it down to a level that all economists who came before us said is necessary,” Conrad said.

Conrad’s views are especially important to agribusiness interests not only because of his leadership of the budget panel, which writes blueprints for future spending, but also because of the influence he wields in writing farm bills. Even though he wasn’t chairman of the Senate agriculture committee at the time, Conrad teamed with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., to write the key elements of the 2008 farm bill.

Agriculture Secreatary Tom Vilsack this week criticized the commission’s plan, saying that that agriculture spending had already taken a hit toward reducing the deficit because of a reduction in crop insurance that the Agriculture Department made this year.

“I agree with that entirely. But understand the alternative we’re facing, which was a $30 billion cut,” Conrad said, referring to the commission’s previous proposal, which called for cutting farm spending by $3 billion a year. The final plan voted on Friday would reduce overall agricultural spending by $1 billion annually.

Conrad also rejected an accusation by a fellow commission member, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., that the plan was anti-rural.

Conrad’s hand in the plan’s farm section was clear because of a related proposal to shift an additional $5 billion in farm spending into an agricultural disaster program that has no funding base after 2012. That program was developed in North Dakota, where farmers have long been dependent on federal disaster assistance.

The cuts would come from a handful of large but popular programs, including fixed annual payments to grain and cotton growers; the Conservation Stewardship Program, which makes payments to farmers who improve environmental practices; the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which subsidies the cost of pollution controls and conservation measures; and the Market Access Program, which subsidizes overseas promotion of farm products.