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Farm bill payments to change

When budget-cutters get serious about reducing federal spending, farm expenditures are sure to take a hit. Negotiations are under way now on a new farm bill. Farm-state congressmen and senators will be among those on the cut-spending bandwagon. It will be their task, however, to target farm-program changes that do not undercut the success of the current farm bill. Among the major provisions of the current bill that are on the chopping block are direct payments to big farmers. Direct payment limitations, which have survived every attempt to cap or eliminate them, will not survive this time.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a freshman member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is hip-deep in farm bill talks, just as he was when he was governor of North Dakota. Observers of the senator, therefore, must have wondered why he voted against payment limitations a few days ago, when he's said he supports direct-payment cutbacks. Not to worry. The senator reacted to the provision being handled in an appropriations committee rather than the ag committee. His vote against limiting the payments was procedural. He has not changed his position favoring limits, and he will support limits whether handled by the ag committee or an appropriations committee.

Indeed, the chairwoman and ranking member of the Senate ag committee said the committee was already implementing payment limitations in the new farm bill.

In other words, it appears there is strong bipartisan support to cap direct payments based on farm income. The change will make a difference in the amount of federal dollars coming into farm economies, but cutting off direct payments to the nation's wealthiest farm operators has political legs. And it's probably a good idea as the nation deals with a deficit crisis, a solution for which will spread pain to everyone.

The payment-limitation provision is not a new idea. Former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., was among the most vocal champions of the caps during his career in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House. He tried and tried again to enact caps on high-income farmers but was stymied every time by lobbyists for the biggest farmers, most often Southern rice and cotton farmers. Those producers might not have the clout they've had in the past, because some of the most vocal budget-cutters in Congress are Republicans from Southern states.

As farm bill negotiations proceed, Hoeven and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who also is on the ag committee, intend to preserve the so-called countercyclical, market-based safety net for farmers, which has worked very well, both for farmers and for the federal treasury. They also are among those working to develop better crop insurance provisions. As governor, Hoeven worked well with Conrad and Dorgan on matters of vital interest to North Dakotans. Hoeven and Conrad are maintaining that productive working relationship.