The legislators are using the supercommittee to avoid what would be a more public, election-year debate in 2012, when the current farm bill expires and new legislation would be scheduled for writing, according to critics of the effort.
“We call it the secret farm bill,” said one environmental activist, who worries that if the lawmakers succeed, it will prop up U.S. farm payments through 2017.
While some of the changes lawmakers are expected to propose would save billions on paper, critics say the new farm payments could balloon in cost if commodity prices fall.
Opponents also worry the lawmakers are trying to get around longtime critics of the farm bill who for years have said the legislation is a symbol of waste that costs taxpayers money while hurting farmers in poor countries who do not receive similar levels of support.
“They are completely trying to write a whole new farm subsidy program,” a second activist said. “They are making an end-run around people who question these programs.”
An advantage of locking in the changes through the supercommittee is that the panel’s recommendations must get an up-or-down vote in Congress. That would give less leverage to opponents of farm subsidies.
Ben Becker, a spokesman for the Senate Agriculture Committee, defended the effort to propose farm bill changes to the supercommittee.
“Either the supercommittee would in essence write the Farm Bill, with no hearings or public input, or the Agriculture Committees and the communities we represent would have a voice. Democrats and Republicans are working hard within the process that’s been imposed on us to develop a sound bipartisan and bicameral recommendation that members of both parties can support,” he said.
But the secrecy of the process has even some farm lobbyists raising questions.
The proposals from Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who have been negotiating for weeks, are expected to include a new type of revenue-based insurance for some crops as well as a bolstered price-triggered payment for other crops.
The Agriculture committees had been asked to deliver recommendations on $23 billion in cuts over the next 10 years by Nov. 1, but they missed that deadline.
The $23 billion package is expected to include billions in cuts to nutrition and conservation programs, but the biggest chunk, estimated at $13 billion, would come from payments to farmers.
Stabenow has focused on a new revenue-based “shallow loss” insurance program that is supported by corn, wheat, barley, soy and canola farmers.
Lucas, with the support of rice and peanut farmers, wants to modify the existing price-based payment to farmers for those crops.
Payments to cotton farmers have been a sticking point, and they are set to get their own program, also linked to commodity prices.
Farmers now receive “direct payments” that are based on historical production. This means that even if the farmer produces nothing, payments from the government can still be received.
The farm safety net includes subsidized crop insurance and countercyclical and marketing loan payments that rise when prices fall. These latter payments are intended to help farmer survive dramatic changes in world prices.
Outrage over direct payments going to farmers who no longer farm has led the Agriculture committees to largely agree that direct payments need to be replaced.
Stabenow’s proposed “shallow loss” insurance program would complement traditional crop insurance. The program would pay farmers for small losses typically not covered by existing insurance.
The proposed replacement payments for cotton, rice and peanuts would be based on higher “target” prices. If the market falls below the higher “target,” the government would pay farmers the difference through countercyclical payments or marketing loans.
The American Farm Bureau decided to oppose the shallow-loss proposal, arguing that it will encourage farmers to take on excessive risk.
Environmental and international poverty advocates are against the whole process.
The groups believe higher price-based payments promote overproduction and distort world trade, hurting farmers in the Third World and causing them to cut down rainforest in search of more income.
This story was updated at 11:21 a.m.