RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Senate will be voting on final passage of a five-year farm bill this afternoon. One big change in the new bill - it puts an end to the controversial cash payments made directly to farmers regardless of their profits. Still, as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, critics argue the new crop insurance program that replaces those cash subsidies is just another giveaway.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: The farm bill started out as a way to help farmers who were hurting after the Great Depression. But it's become one of those mammoth bills in Congress crammed with things that in many cases have very little to do with each other. Food stamps, dairy policies, Christmas tree feeds. Republican John McCain of Arizona pored through some of the bill's 900 pages, or had his staff do that, and found what he called straight-up handouts, like $12 million to study and promote wool.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Now, there's a lot of needy areas of America today, but I had no idea that wool research and promotion was worthy of 12 million of our tax dollars.
CHANG: Or, he says, consider the $15 million earmarked for an office that would inspect catfish.
MCCAIN: Only catfish. Not a shrimp, not a cod, not a tilapia, but only a catfish.
CHANG: Also getting criticism is the newly reformed crop insurance program. Now, the idea was to protect farmers during bad seasons. The new bill expands that program with money saved from ending a system of direct cash payments to farmers. These are payments farmers would get regardless of their actual profits or even if they planted any crops.
The payments amounted to about $5 billion a year. Democrat Debbie Stabenow, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, says now farmers will have to first incur losses before they get paid.
SENATOR DEBBIE STABENOW: With crop insurance, farmers don't get a check. They get a bill. They may pay tens of thousands of dollars in premiums and never get a check in a year.
CHANG: But critics say farmers are just getting subsidized in a different way under this bill.
CRAIG COX: From our point of view, it's essentially a bait and switch.
CHANG: Craig Cox at the Environmental Working Group says taxpayers are still taking on most of the risk for farmers.
COX: 'Cause you're ending the direct payments program, which is absolutely a good thing to do, but then they're quietly using 80 percent of the savings to gin up this new suite of subsidies that in many ways are worse for taxpayers, for small farmers and the environment.
CHANG: Cox says the crop insurance policy fails to limit subsidies given to the wealthiest farmers and it generates windfall profits to insurance companies. And, he says, the bill should have used the savings from getting rid of direct payments to fund more conservation programs. Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma says the government will be subsidizing more than 60 percent of crop insurance in the country, and that program will guarantee 86 percent of a farmer's revenue.
SENATOR TOM COBURN: I mean think about that. Do you know anywhere else where you can get your revenue on your crops guaranteed at 86 percent and the federal taxpayer is paying most of the cost of the insurance for that?
CHANG: The House passed this bill last week and despite critics' concerns, the Senate appears it will do the same today. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.