Thursday, October 06, 2005

Congress seeks to cut food aid for poor

Congress seeks to cut food aid for poor

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Under orders to cut agriculture spending by $3 billion, Republicans in Congress propose reducing food programs for the poor by $574 million and conservation programs by $1 billion, The Associated Press has learned.

The proposal by Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., also would cut farmers' payments by 2.5 percent across the board.

Under the plan, payments would be reduced by $1.145 billion over five years. But that is considerably less severe than President Bush had proposed. Bush sought a 5 percent reduction in payments, plus a far-reaching plan for capping payments that would slash billions more dollars from subsidies collected by large farm operations.

The AP obtained a summary of the budget-cutting plan, which is scheduled for a Thursday morning vote in Chambliss' committee.

Congress ordered the $3 billion in cuts in a budget outline passed earlier this year. Leading Republicans indicated they would rather target food stamps and conservation programs than simply make the deep cuts that Bush was seeking, and the administration backed off its plan in April amid fierce opposition from farmers. Cotton and rice growers would bear the brunt of payment limits.

It's not fair for nutrition and conservation programs to shoulder more of the burden, said environmental groups, anti-hunger advocates and taxpayer organizations fighting the cuts.

"Subsidies get $20 billion a year; conservation gets less than $4 billion - to expect farmers who want to help the environment to shoulder as heavy a load as fat-cat cotton producers is terrible policy," said Scott Faber, spokesman for the Washington-based advocacy group Environmental Defense.

Government conservation programs pay farmers to stop farming certain land or to change their practices to help the environment.

Congressional Democrats were also hostile to the cuts.

"It is hard to see this budget balanced on the backs of poor people and struggling family farmers when agribusinesses continue to reap millions without payment caps in place," said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., a member of the Senate Agriculture appropriations subcommittee.

Another subcommittee member, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said he and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, are still pushing for Bush's payment limits.

Faber called the budget cuts "a body blow" to global trade talks being held by the World Trade Organization. Developing nations are insisting that the U.S. and other wealthy nations cut subsidies.

"Developing nations won't open their markets to our farm products unless we're willing to reform our farm subsidies. This sends exactly the wrong signal at exactly the wrong time," Faber said.

The $574 million cut in food stamps would come from restricting access to this benefit for certain families that receive other government assistance. The restriction would shut an estimated 300,000 people out of the program.

The $1.05 billion conservation cuts would curb the number of acres that can be enrolled in the biggest of the programs, the Conservation Reserve Program, and limit spending on two others, the Conservation Security Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The payment cuts would affect all payments and marketing loan gains for producers of corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, cotton and other subsidized crops. Dairy producers, too, would see a 2.5 percent drop in payments from the Milk Income Loss Contract program, which pays to help producers cope with dips in market prices. The MILC program expired Friday, but supporters are trying to get Congress to renew it.