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Crop insurance takes hits on Senate floor

Subsidized crop insurance took its first hits in the farm bill debate today when the Senate voted to approve an amendment offered by Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to raise premiums by 15 percent for farmers with an adjusted gross income of more than $750,000, and approved another amendment by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., to require farmers participating in the crop insurance program adhere to federal conservation standards.

The debate over the Durbin-Coburn amendment was a rare moment of bitterness on the Senate floor during the debate.

Durbin said that the amendment would affect only 1,500 farmers and without it the crop insurance program would be the only section of the bill not to take a cut. Coburn noted it would save $1 billion.

But Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said the adoption of the amendment "will impact every single producer in the program.” Predicting that big farmers would leave the program, he said, “The rest will pay higher premiums when they are out the program.”

Roberts also said that the provision would lead to return of low crop-insurance participation and ad hoc disaster programs.

The vote for Durbin-Coburn amendment was 66 to 33 — so large an approval that it signaled a change in attitude in Congress and possibly also that some senators had voted for it in order to be able to negotiate with Roberts, a strong crop insurance supporter, over other farm bill issues when the bill goes to conference.

Under the Durbin-Coburn bill, the Agriculture Department must certify that there is no net increase in the total cost of the federal crop insurance program.

The vote on the Chambliss amendment, which establishes highly erodible land and wetland conservation compliance requirements for the crop insurance program, was 52 to 47.

The Senate rejected by a vote of 44-55 an amendment proposed by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., that said USDA must certify that the adjusted gross income provision will not increase its administrative costs by one dollar. Its passage would have nullified the Durbin-Coburn amendment.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents smaller, environmentally-minded farmers, praised the adoption of both amendments.

“The Durbin-Coburn amendment begins the process of targeting taxpayer support for crop insurance, saving money by reducing subsidies for mega farms,” NSAC said. “The Chambliss amendment brings common sense conservation protections to the farm safety net to protect the natural resources on which our food security depends.”

The Environmental Working Group said the Durbin-Coburn amendment “will help level the playing field for family farmers. We applaud the senators for their efforts to place reasonable limits on crop insurance, which has become the primary safety net for farmers, that will simply require the largest and most profitable farm businesses to share a fair share of their risk protection costs with the taxpayer.”

EWG said the Chambliss amendment “has reaffirmed the quid pro quo between farmers and taxpayers that has protected soil, water and wetlands since 1985. This commonsense measure is needed now more than ever at a time when high crop prices are placing unprecedented pressure on our soil, water and wildlife habitat and bloated insurance subsidies produce powerful incentives to plow up marginal lands.”

But the National Corn Growers Association said its members are “very disappointed” in the passage of the Chambliss amendment.

“Our members have spent a significant amount of time discussing this issue and feel this addition to the farm bill would have a negative impact toward America’s farmers,” the group said. “NCGA’s official policy states we oppose the coupling of conservation compliance to eligibility for federal crop insurance.”

Earlier, the Senate also adopted a Coburn amendment that removes the Agriculture secretary's authority to allow high-income farmers and landowners to participate in USDA conservation programs.

The vote was 63-36, with most of the opposition coming from wealthier states where high-income people are landowners.

Some environmentalists who oppose wealthy people getting commodity subsidies have favored allowing them to get conservation subsidies on the grounds that improving the environmental is a public good. A spokeswoman for the Environmental Working Groups said the group “didn’t oppose or support the amendment, but we think it is reasonable for millionaires to pick up the cost for conservation measures on their farms.”