House and Senate Agriculture committee staffs are trying today to finalize how much to limit farm bill payments and decide on adjusted gross income limits for farm subsidy recipients, according to a spokeswoman for Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin. They are also working out how those limits will apply to conservation programs. Harkin, who is chairing the conference, has not decided whether to call another formal conference or simply ask conferees to sign the conference report, the spokeswoman said. Conferees met late last week and wrapped up all but a few issues, including payment limitations. Harkin said he would not convene a conference any earlier than Tuesday afternoon.
The House-passed farm bill would apply the same income limitations on commodity programs to conservation programs, whereas the Senate-passed bill would stick with the 2002 income limit, on conservation programs, which is $2.5 million per year for a single person and $5 million for a married couple. Adjusted gross income limits on commodity programs in the new bill have not been finalized, but principal negotiators have discussed $500,000 for an individual nonfarmer and $950,000 for a farmer. Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad said last week that the principal negotiators had decided to use the House bill's income test and that he favored that approach. But most conservation groups have opposed income tests on conservation programs on the grounds that they create "a public good" by preserving the environment. Harkin has also opposed the application of the commodity program income tests to conservation programs.
The Environmental Defense Fund and other conservation groups sent House and Senate leaders a letter last week urging that the new bill retain the income tests and payment limits on conservation programs that were in the 2002 farm bill. "Commodity programs and conservation programs have different purposes," said the EDF's Sara Hopper. "The purpose of the former is to provide income support, the latter to encourage farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners to produce a public benefit -- cleaner water, cleaner air, improved habitat for wildlife." The groups have argued that a lower income test would mean that some fragile land marginal to agriculture production could not be idled through the Conservation Reserve Program.
Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents small farmers, said his group would not oppose the payment limitations cap because large farmers compete with needy small farmers for conservation programs under which the government pays part of the cost of clean up. But Hoefner said he agrees with EDF and other conservation groups that a provision in the House-passed farm bill, which remains under consideration, to limit payments under the Wetlands Reserve Program to $50,000 per year "makes no sense." Under the House-passed bill, if the government paid more than $50,000 for a wetland, the payments would be over a multiyear period. Hoefner said the provision would make it difficult to convince owners of large wetlands in Florida and expensive wetlands in California to sell their property rights to the government because the payout is supposed to be over a multiyear period. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer put a temporary hold on a two-week extension of the 2002 farm bill last week because she opposed the cap. A spokeswoman said today that Boxer had lifted the hold because "we started making some progress with the conferees."
This article appears in the May 10, 2008, edition of National Journal Daily.