Senate Republicans blast farm bill revamp

Some Senate Republicans are disputing claims that the new farm bill would save the government money, arguing it would actually jack up federal spending by nearly $400 billion.

They say the bill, which supporters say would save $23 billion by ending direct payments to farmers, includes several wasteful programs that should be scrapped given the fiscal condition of the federal government.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Thursday morning that far from saving money, the bill would cost an estimated $969 billion over 10 years, up from the $600 billion spent in the 2008 farm bill.

"This bill is over 1,000 pages, and an estimated cost of $969 billion over 10 years," McCain said on the Senate floor. "That's about $1 billion per page."

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"I'm mostly mindful that taxpayers are saddled with $1.5 trillion deficit and a ballooning $15 trillion debt," he added. "The farm bill is ripe for spending cuts."

Earlier in the week, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said the bill could only be seen as a cut when taking into account the temporary spending increases from the 2009 stimulus law. He agreed that the farm bill represents a 60 percent increase in spending on federal farm programs compared to 2008 levels.

"Yet the folks who are speaking about the farm bill here are telling us this saves some $20 billion," he said. "Only in Washington could they look at you with a straight face and say this saves money."

On Thursday, McCain outlined several programs that he said could be chopped in order to reduce spending. He said the bill would end direct farm payments, saving $50 billion, but would spend $35 billion of the savings on new programs.

One of the new programs is an Agricultural Risk Coverage program, which McCain said would lock in record-high crop prices and guarantee farmers an 89 percent return on their crops. Depending on how crop prices fluctuate, this program could cost between $3 and $14 billion over the next 10 years, he said.

McCain also said it would set up a new program that subsidizes crop insurance premiums for farmers. "Subsidized insurance, subsidized premiums, and subsidized deductibles," he said. "I'm hard-pressed to think of any other industry that operates with less risk at the expense of the American taxpayer."

McCain targeted some larger programs for possible cuts, including a $700 million research program at the Department of Agriculture that would, among other things, study pine tree growth in Florida. He also listed a $250 million program to plant trees and a $125 million program to promote healthy food choices at schools, which is one of five programs that already do this.

But he also noted several smaller programs that could be cut. McCain said the bill would spend $15 million to "improve the U.S. sheep industry," $10 million to eradicate feral pigs and $25 million to study the health effects of peas, lentils and garbanzo beans. He especially criticized a $40 million program to encourage private landowners to share their land with birdwatchers and hunters.

"We're looking at a $1.5 trillion deficit this year, and we're going to spend $40 million to encourage private landowners to use their land for birdwatching and hunting," he said.

The bill would also continue to spend $1 million to subsidize mohair wool production, a program that has lasted since the mid-1950s.

McCain also complained about language in the last farm bill that gives USDA the authority to inspect catfish, even though the Food and Drug Administration inspects all other seafood. McCain said this change was an effort to protect U.S. catfish producers from imports from Vietnam and other countries.

Both he and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said they would push an amendment that would give inspection authority back to the FDA.

"This is a disgraceful example of how special interests can imbed themselves in a farm bill for generations," he said.

Also new in the bill is a program to subsidize popcorn producers, which would lose their direct subsidies under the bill, at the cost of $91 million over 10 years. He said popcorn prices are already rising, and that at a movie theater, the popcorn, the cooking oil and the butter all receive subsidies.

"Popcorn is doing fine," McCain said. "There isn't a kernel of evidence that they need this support from taxpayers."

— This story was updated at 1:52 p.m.

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