Washington — Sen. Pat Roberts, architect of the market-oriented 1996 farm reforms, and Sen. Sam Brownback voted Wednesday against the farm bill speeding toward the president's desk.
The Democratic-controlled Senate approved the legislation, 64-35, despite the objections of Roberts, Brownback and other Republicans who called it too expensive and a return to Depression-era farm policy. The measure won passage in the House on a 280-141 vote last Thursday, and President Bush is expected to sign it into law.
The Kansas senators acted despite the measure's support from major farm groups in their agriculture-dominated state. Yet Brownback and Roberts run little risk of alienating Kansas Farm Bureau and other mainstream commodity organizations, which are staunchly allied with both men.
"I don't think you'll see a backlash," said Kansas Farm Bureau spokesman Mike Matson. "Their whole careers are based on support for agriculture and rural Kansas. We understand where they're coming from."
Like American Farm Bureau Federation, Kansas Farm Bureau is an enthusiastic supporter of the new farm bill, which would boost agriculture spending by nearly 80 percent over the cost of existing programs. New independent analysis shows Kansas would reap an even larger benefit, with an average annual increase of 91 percent over current crop payments.
That analysis, by the University of Missouri's Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, shows Kansas farmers would receive about $442 million each year under current law, compared to $844 million under the new bill, an increase of $402 million.
However, the current-law average does not factor in emergency payments Congress has made since prices collapsed in 1998, which has meant an estimated $350 million more each year for Kansas.
But government spending will fall if prices rise, which is a key reason for opposition from Roberts, Brownback and others. Rather than providing income protections, the bill boosts price supports for grain and cotton farmers.
"The bill fails to provide assistance to producers when they need it most when there is no crop to harvest," Roberts said.
Roberts, who was chairman of the House Agriculture Committee during the last farm bill, said the measure would force producers of wheat and other crops to wait until more than a year from now to receive what they would have gotten in September under current farm policy. And the new bill will mean four checks from the government instead of one, he added.
"They will not receive the last payment for this year's 2002 crop until they are harvesting next year's 2003 crop," Roberts said.
Both senators raised similar concerns about the bill. Brownback, a former state agriculture secretary, focused on estimates that federal crop subsidies this year will exceed the $19.1 billion limit that U.S. farmers are allowed under the World Trade Organization.
"Ninety-six percent of the world's consumers live outside of the United States," Brownback said. "Kansas farmers my family are dependent on these world markets for their livelihood. This bill will surely spur our partners to retaliate."
Division among the six Kansans in Congress Roberts, Brownback and the four House members showed how contentious the farm bill debate has been.
In the House last week, GOP Reps. Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt and Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore voted for the new farm bill.
"The farm bill will provide assistance when we have sustained low prices, like we do today," said Moran, who served on the House-Senate conference committee that negotiated the final legislation. He noted the projections of an added $402 million for Kansas.
"Kansas farmers and ranchers are facing the most difficult times in recent memory," Moran said. "Given the wide range of views of members in the House and Senate, we worked hard to make the best bill possible for Kansas farmers and ranchers."
The new bill was originally expected to cost about $170 billion over the next 10 years, but weaker-than-expected commodity prices are now expected to cause crop subsidies to rise and push the total price tag to $190 billion.
Tiahrt said that estimate, released this week by the Congressional Budget Office, made him wish he could reconsider voting for the bill.
"I would consider voting 'no' today, because of the size of it," said Tiahrt, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee. "It was so marginal to start with. That's a pretty big margin of error."
Rep. Jim Ryun, R-Kan., did vote 'no,' raising concerns similar to Roberts', Brownback's and Tiahrt's.
"Specifically, the high loan rates will stimulate overproduction and lead to lower prices for crops," Ryun said last week. "The bill places too high a financial burden on American taxpayers, and the costliest provisions do not aid Kansas' farmers."
The farm bill is H.R. 2646.