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Subsidies on the table

  • Published Sunday, April 24, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, April 24, 2011, at 1:42 a.m.

If everything is now on the table for federal budget cuts, that includes payments to those who put food on our tables.

The deficit debate could be a turning point for Kansas lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who’ve long seen agricultural subsidies as essential to protect the nation’s farm families and food production.

“To get serious about the debt is to tackle entitlement reform, and that includes the farm bill,” Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., recently told the Agribusiness Club of Washington.

Just as he was as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee for the 1996 farm bill, Roberts will be a key player in writing the 2012 farm bill (his seventh as a lawmaker) — now as ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

He and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and their GOP colleagues in the House will have to balance their zeal for deficit reduction with their duty to help rural constituents who’ve relied on subsidies to make ends meet.

A farmer himself, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, is in an especially interesting position on the issue.

Huelskamp’s “Big First” district ranked second in the country, behind only North Dakota’s single district, in total federal agricultural subsidies in 2009,

collecting $368 million, according to the Environmental Working Group. Kansas ranked fifth among states that year, drawing $912 million.

Though candidate Huelskamp was supported by the anti-subsidy Club for Growth, he told The Eagle editorial board last summer that he thought the amount of farm subsidies was OK as it was.

But Huelskamp drew attention for telling a Salina audience recently: “Farmers are going to have to make the argument, to Head Start folks and others, that their subsidies are worth borrowing 42 cents for every dollar spent.” (One farmer in the audience was ready to see them go, saying “the Constitution doesn’t say anything about farm subsidies.”)

For his part, Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, ran for his job by talking about using lower tax rates, less regulation and other policies to transition away from farm subsidies.

And like all but four Republicans in the House, Pompeo and Huelskamp voted earlier this month for the “Path to Prosperity” proposal of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. That austere blueprint calls for $177 billion in cuts to agricultural programs over the next decade, including $30 billion from direct payments and crop insurance. Ryan would have payments to farmers reflect high commodity prices and reform federal support for crop insurance in a way that asks producers to assume and manage risk.

“‘The Path to Prosperity’ recognizes that there are no sacred cows in Washington,” Huelskamp recently told the Hutchinson News when asked about farm subsidies.

He also said: “As we prepare for consideration of the 2012 farm bill, I welcome the input of Kansans who might be affected by this legislation. The more information we have, the better.”

The question then will become what lawmakers do with the feedback, how deeply they cut — and whether a nation with fewer farm subsidies and freer markets can still have affordable and plentiful food.

— For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

— For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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