When Congress returns, lawmakers have several spending decisions to make. One of them is whether to renew the farm bill that expired last month and how much in future federal subsidies to farmers a deeply indebted government can afford.
Last year, farmer Marlin Stutzman collected $30,813 in direct federal subsidies for his Stuzman Farms in Indiana and southern Michigan.
This year, as a newly elected member of Congress, Stutzman, R-Ind., sits on the House Agriculture Committee that will help determine if those subsidies will continue.
Stutzman is one of four freshmen members of Congress who have farms that have collected direct subsidies from the government since they took office. Each took home income from their farm productions as sitting members of Congress in 2011, according to their financial disclosure forms.
Three are members of the House Agriculture Committee that began work on the Farm Bill back in July. While the Senate passed a version; the House did not before lawmakers departed Washington for the election. And that means the existing legislation expired in October, and its future remains uncertain when lawmakers return after the election.
Stutzman's farms collected $30,813 in direct federal subsidies in fiscal year 2012 through two different Department of Agriculture programs. One is the Counter-cyclical Payments Program, which is is designed “to provide income support to eligible producers of covered commodities.”
The Farm Service Agency counts wheat, corn, barley, oats, upland cotton, rice, soy, peanuts, lentils and chickpeas among its eligible commodities.
The government spent $3.9 billion on the program in fiscal year 2012, and has spent nearly $100 billion since 2000. The other is the Conservation Reservation Program, which was created to protect the nation’s long-term capability to produce food, reduce soil erosion, improve water quality and create wildlife habitat.
According to USDA spending reports, this program has cost the government $18.4 billion since 2000 and $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2012 alone.
Stutzman is no stranger to federal subsidies. The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization that tracks federal farm subsidies, received $190,226 in farm subsidies between 1997 and 2011. But in 2010, Stutzman told an Indiana newspaper that he is opposed to the subsidy system as it manipulates the market. Yet, he continued to collect checks.
"The point is it's the farm system. They're going to send me a check here in a couple of weeks, and you know what? I'm going to deposit it. I don't like it. I don't like the system," Stutzman said.
During his time in Washington, Stutzman has upheld that opposition.
“Since my first day here in Washington, I’ve been consistent in my opposition to direct payments, payments I’ve received in the past. I know firsthand that they only handcuff farmers and manipulate the economy. They’ve outgrown any use they may have had,” he said in a statement. “My principled opposition to direct payments should not be confused with any misguided opposition to genuine safety nets for farmers.”
Earlier this year, he joined with Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., in proposing a plan to cut $40 billion by eliminating some direct subsidy programs and nutrition program spending.
It is legal for sitting members of Congress to receive federal farm subsidies, and members of both parties have sat on the Senate and House Agriculture Committees while receiving farm subsidies in the past, said Don Carr, Senior Communications and Policy Advisor at the Environmental Working Group. Although it is nothing new, Carr said people should still be concerned about where those members’ allegiances lie.
“Anytime a member of Congress is voting on more money going to their self interest that’s going to be a conflict of interest,” Carr said.
Yet, he noted Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Lugar both have received farm subsidies, sit on the Senate Agriculture Committee and have fought for years to put a limit on the amount of money that can go to the largest farms.
“My hope is [the members of the House Agriculture Committee who receive subsidies] would look at farms with limited funds and struggling family farmers that need the money much more than the large food producers do,” he said.
Two of Stutzman’s fellow freshmen members of the House Agriculture Committee are farmers who received government subsidies.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., and her husband own Hartzler Farms, Inc, a farm that was valued between $1 million and 5 million at the end of 2011, according to Hartzler's financial disclosure report.
During that year, the Hartzlers received $18,395 in direct federal subsidies. The funds were part of both the Direct and Counter-cyclical Payments Program and the Conservation Reservation Program.
The Environmental Working Group estimates Hartzler’s husband personally received $820,768 in federal subsidies between 1995 and 2011.
On his congressional website, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., describes himself as a “fifth-generation American farmer” with “first-hand knowledge of the challenges facing America’s agriculture committee.”
He also knows first-hand about the federal farm subsidy system. In 2011, the Huelskamp Farm took home $80,984 in direct payment from the federal government as part of both the Direct and Counter-cyclical Payments Program and the Conservation Reservation Program in 2012. That is slightly less than the $99,028 it received in fiscal year 2011. Huelskamp earned $4,398 from his farm in 2011, according to his financial disclosure report.
On his website, Huelskamp states cutting spending is still a priority when looking at the Farm Bill. “I believe that every program should be under review as we evaluate our spending priorities,” he says on his website.
Like, Huelskamp and Hartzler, Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., is a member of the House Tea Party caucus, although he does not sit on the House Agriculture Committee.
"Government spending, deficits and debt are the greatest threat our country faces. We need to cut up the national credit card, reduce spending, and get our financial house in order. This must be our national priority - this, and national security, keeping our country safe in a dangerous world,” Fincher is quoted as saying on his campaign website.
But Fincher’s Stephen & Lynn Fincher Farms received $3,413,776 between 1999 and 2011, according to the Environmental Working Group’s database of USDA data.
Fincher remains a 50 percent owner of the farm with his wife. In 2011, he earned $33,943 from his farm that is valued between $500,000 to $1 million, according to Fincher’s annual financial disclosure form.
In 2011, Stephen & Lynn Fincher Farms received $55,924 in direct federal subsidies from the Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, according to federal spending data. The subsidies were part of the Direct and Counter-cyclical Payments Program.
While she did not receive subsidies while serving in Congress, Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., also a freshmen member of the House Agriculture Committee, is no stranger to the subsidy system.
Noem had less than 20 percent share in Racota Valley Ranch between 2000 and 2008. During the time the ranch received $3,058,152 in farm subsidies, according to federal spending data.
One of the decisions facing lawmakers when they return is a new shallow loss program that would pay farmers for any loss of revenue if crop prices drop. It was included in the Senate version of the farm bill passed this summer.
A report by the American Enterprise Institute estimated the program could cost taxpayers between $8 and $14 billion over the next five years if the recent high prices of crops are not sustained.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas has said he believes the House will eliminate some direct subsidies, but he said the government should ensure the sustainability of the farm industry.
“My personal perspective has been that the real issue is not keeping the good times good, it’s what do you do when you have a free-fall? I don’t know that it’s government’s responsibility to make the good times the best, but we do have a responsibility to keep the industry from collapsing,” Lucas said in an interview with the National Journal.