Obama’s budget is bitter harvest

“Fiscal responsibility.” It is a common phrase touted from the halls of Congress to the Sunday talk-show circuit to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but rarely ever achieved in Washington these days. Nearly a year ago, Congress passed a new farm bill by overwhelming margins — legislation that was three years in the making. Anyone that participated in the farm bill debate last year knows that it was not an easy undertaking. The farm bill adhered to fiscal responsibility and achieved what few pieces of legislation did last Congress: It did not add to the federal deficit.

The farm bill was fully paid for and complied with pay-as-you-go rules. Because we exercised financial discipline, funded critical programs and addressed urgent needs, we were able to override not one, but two presidential vetoes. As one of the coauthors of this historic legislation, I take great pride in the final product we crafted with deference to making certain every dollar allocated was being spent with the taxpayers in mind. We wrote a farm bill that strengthens our nation’s food security, protects the livelihood of our producers and provides investments in nutrition assistance programs, conservation and renewable energy.

Last month, President Obama officially released his first budget proposal detailing his fiscal 2010 budget request, and predictably, he called for additional cuts to key agriculture programs. Many of the proposals coming from the new administration regarding the Department of Agriculture budget and the yet-to-be-implemented farm bill have been troubling. Of particular concern were items pertaining to our current farm safety net. Despite several calls by my colleagues and me for the president to abandon some of those proposals, the budget still included the same ill-advised cuts to the farm safety net. To add insult to injury, these cuts were proposed without any serious corresponding proposal to trim the bloated federal budget and reduce our national debt.

On the surface some of the proposed savings may seem reasonable to those who do not understand the economics of farming. Most are simply misguided, recycled gimmicks from previous years. This administration promised change, yet it offers the same agriculture proposals previously rejected. Time and time again, we have seen the administration unfairly target agriculture programs to achieve savings, and not only completely discount the hardworking men and women that rely on these programs for their livelihoods, but also the millions of people who depend on our farmers for a safe and affordable food supply.

There is no question that leaner times call for leaner measures, but slashing investments in American agriculture, which provides benefits to all Americans, simply isn’t the answer. Agriculture spending represents less than one percent of the federal budget, yet it is constantly under attack. For example, many criticize our commodity and export-promotion programs, even as they unconsciously benefit from a safe, affordable and abundant food and fiber supply.

I have been proud to support comprehensive U.S. farm policy during my time in Congress because it not only is an important investment, but it is a crucial national security concern. The American farmer has provided an abundant food supply to the American public for so long that it is impossible for Americans to ever imagine an inability to obtain food. Couple this with the ever-shrinking agricultural population, and we in agriculture have become increasingly vulnerable to scurrilous attacks.

Every day our farmers are targeted by the unfair trading practices of other nations. Critics on the left and right complain about the pittance we spend to support domestic agriculture, while our competitors in Europe outspend us 4 to 1. To them, I say we did not win the Cold War by unilaterally disarming. I am willing to reduce agricultural spending as soon as our competitors do, but not before. I will not allow our farmers and ranchers to be targets of foreign treasuries. Investing in American agriculture is a worthy cause and provides benefits not only to all Americans, but to the world as well.

Agriculture is one of the few industries in the United States that has a positive balance of trade. That’s right: We export more agriculture products than we import, and at the same time, we face some of the most restrictive and arbitrary import barriers of any sector. Not only are we known as a leader in global markets, but we are the most generous supplier of food aid in the world. In fact, the U.S. contributes over 50 percent of the world’s food assistance.

Agriculture programs also support the surrounding rural communities, as these dollars are turning over in the local economies. Some may be surprised to know that the benefits are reaped across other regions as well: The cotton harvesters used by farmers in Georgia are manufactured in Iowa, providing jobs and support to communities there.

When we reauthorized the farm bill, we paid for it. When we wrote the farm bill, we wrote a bill not only for all of agriculture, but also for all of America. We think it is neither right nor appropriate to pit a small farmer against a large farmer, a dairy farm against an almond farm, a Southerner against a Midwesterner, and most important of all, children against farmers.

This administration spends billions to trillions of dollars, increasing the deficit to astronomical proportions, and then looks at the one area of the budget where we have been fiscally responsible to cut. I am not certain how this administration can justify slashing agriculture one day to appear fiscally responsible, and then doling out billions of dollars to “distressed industries” and programs it views as more worthy the next. Americans are worried that this new level of massive debt will be passed down to their children and grandchildren, and I sympathize with them. Unfortunately, the president’s budget proposal is not the answer to get us back on track.

Chambliss is the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.