Photo: Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
FILE – In this June 7, 2012 file photo, House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. He is one of four veteran Texas Republicans who are quitting Congress, meaning their state will be trading House seniority for newcomers who may be even more conservative.(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
FILE – In this June 7, 2012 file photo, House Science Committee…
Six Texans are among 32 members of Congress who received farm subsidy payments between 1995 and 2016, according to a report released Thursday by the Environmental Working Group.
“I think it’s important for voters to know that members of Congress are voting in ways that might line their own pockets,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s vice president for government affairs. “No one’s advocating the elimination of the farm safety net. We’re simply advocating for reasonable limits on who can receive subsidies and the amount they can receive.”
The report comes as lawmakers prepare to negotiate the next farm bill, a five-year, nearly trillion dollar spending package governing spending on agriculture and low-income nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Under the 2014 farm bill, some traditional farm support provisions were replaced with subsidies for crop insurance, the amounts of which Faber noted are not disclosed. The federal government subsidizes about 60 percent of crop insurance premiums.
“In all likelihood, members of Congress are receiving far more farm subsidies than EWG is able to tell you,” Faber said.
The group analyzed more than 20 years of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture obtained through a Freedom of Information request. The USDA, by law, doesn’t publicly release data on various crop insurance subsidies, which pays farmers when crops are bad or suffer natural disaster.
Retiring U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, received a total of $106,402 in other farm subsidies over the 20 years that were analyzed, the most among Texas lawmakers. A ranch he co-owns received $10,256 in disaster assistance in 2004, according to the data. He also took in $101,274 in disaster, corn, cotton, sorghum, sunflower and wheat commodity subsidies from 1995 to 2011.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, ranked second among the Texans, collecting $62,197 in disaster, corn, sorghum, wheat and livestock subsidies. The environmental group also highlighted the $1,205 that went to Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, who is taking heat for using $84,000 in tax dollars to settle a sexual harassment complaint. Farenthold took office in 2011; the subsidies he received were between 1999 and 2005.
Reps. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell; Bill Flores, R-Bryan; and Brian Babin, R-Woodville; received $453, $202. and $81, respectively.
The largest amount of subsidies, $367,763 went to Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who is a Republican member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
“At least eight members of the House and Senate agriculture committees are essentially voting to enrich themselves every time they vote for a farm bill,” Faber said. “Of course, every member of Congress casts a vote. So every member of Congress including legislators like Mac Thornberry and Lamar Smith are voting in ways that likely enrich themselves.”
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Spokeswomen for Smith and Farenthold, the two reached by the San Antonio Express-News, defended the payments.
“The congressman’s family has a background in farming and ranching and the congressman received these subsidies long before he was elected,” Farenthold spokeswoman Stacey Daniels said in an email. “The congressman is a supporter of farm programs that serve as a safety net for our family farms. The congressman, with his farming background, appreciates the plight of our farmers.”
Smith spokeswoman Jennifer Pett said the subsidies were for operations on a 1,000-acre property that was leased to a farmer who independently decides what to plant.
“The payments were received over 22 years when there was a weather event such as a drought or when crop prices fell below the world average,” she said. “These programs encourage farmers to provide food and fiber during difficult times.”
Farm subsidies have been under widespread scrutiny since the environmental group in 2011 released data showing that urban millionaires – to include the New York City-based son of former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller – were getting government checks of hundreds of thousands of dollars for distant farms.
A 2012 Government Accountability Office report found that a quarter of payments were going to farmers who weren’t growing the covered crops, while another 2,300 farms got checks without growing any crops at all.
The 2014 farm bill ended direct payments to farmers, which were given regardless of market prices or crop yields or market conditions, as well as counter-cyclical payments that kicked in when prices for certain crops fell below certain levels. They were replaced by two new programs: the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC), as well as an expanded federal crop insurance program.
In June, the Congressional Budget Office released cost estimates that put the cost of commodity farm subsidies from 2016 to 2018 at $22.1 billion rather than the projected $14.6 billion.
Faber said there are a number or reforms being discussed in the run-up to the new farm bill, to include means testing, payment limits and greater transparency.
“No country in the world is as generous to our farmers as the United States and that’s why our farm policies are always are constantly under scrutiny by our trading partners,” Faber said. “Farmers need a safety net, but they don’t need a trampoline.”
Advocates for farm support programs say farmers have seen commodity prices dive since the last farm bill and are up against unfair competition from foreign government subsidies. Many farmers say they are barely getting by as they make payments on equipment and gamble on high yields making up for lower prices.
“It is a system, proven over time, to stabilize farm income and preserve our ability to grow our own food and fiber. Attacks on agriculture are not about farming or the environment. They are almost always about control,” said Gene Hall of the Texas Farm Bureau. “There are groups on both the left and right of the political spectrum that would like the farm bill to go away, or be drastically altered. They want to take farming decisions out of the hands of farmers and ranchers. We will always oppose that.”