Deal Breaker

How H.R. 2542 Ends Conservation Rules in Farm Subsidy Programs

Tuesday, November 7, 1995

Deal Breaker

How H.R. 2542 Ends Conservation Rules in Farm Subsidy Programs

Since 1985, agricultural lawmakers have defended payment of more than $108 billion in federal subsidies to farmers by arguing that the payments help to protect the environment. In order to receive subsidies, farmers must abide by soil and wetlands protections. This "deal" between farmers and taxpayers would be broken by the "Conservation Consolidation and Regulatory Reform Act" (H.R. 2542). As introduced by Rep. Wayne Allard (R-CO) and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS), H.R. 2542 would severely, permanently and immediately weaken Federal farm conservation safeguards, though taxpayers will continue to spend billions of dollars on farm subsidies over the next 7 years or longer.

H.R. 2542 effectively repeals the conservation provisions of the 1985 and 1990 farm bills. It completely severs the link between federal farm subsidies and basic soil conservation requirements. It sets the stage for a major rollback of wetlands conservation laws. It forces federal taxpayers to become perpetual renters in order to obtain any lasting benefits from conservation spending. It shuts out the public from the oversight and enforcement of conservation programs.

In short, H.R. 2542 does to USDA conservation programs what "regulatory reform" did to health, safety and environmental standards. Not only would the bill weaken standards for soil conservation and wetlands protection, it would actually force taxpayers to subsidize soil and wetlands loss, while wasting a full decade of conservation spending.

As it is currently drafted, H.R. 2542 is silent on agriculture's main wetlands conservation program, the "swampbuster" provision of the 1985 and 1990 farm bills, which makes wetlands protection a requirement for eligibility for federal farm subsidies. A preliminary draft of the bill would have repealed swampbuster, completely severing the link between federal farm subsidies and wetlands protection. Although a repeal of swampbuster was not included in the bill as introduced, EWG expects significant weakenings of the swampbuster program during subcommittee and full committee markup of H.R. 2542.

Passage of H.R. 2542 would undermine the claim that the public is receiving any tangible benefit whatsoever from farm subsidy programs. Ironically, if H.R. 2542 removes a major justification for farm program spending, if will further undermine public suport for agricultural assistance generally. H.R. 2542 eliminates USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) as an independent agency.

  • No independent voice. NRCS' technical assistance and conservation compliance roles are put under the control of farmer-elected county committees under the Consolidated Farm Services Agency (CFSA). Only farmers can be elected to these committees, and only farmers can vote. (See H.R. 2542, Sec. 101.)
  • Fox in the Henhouse.Nationwide, more than 83 percent of all county committee members received farm subsidies over the past decade. Just over 8,000 county committee members were paid a total of $852 million over 10 years -- an average of more than $106,000 each. Nearly thirty-two percent of county committee executive directors (generally paid full-time staff) also received subsidies, totaling $19.9 million over 10 years. With subsidy recipients able to overrule USDA's technical decision-making, any objectivity in program administration would be lost.

Policy Review

H.R. 2542 eliminates important programs that are popular among farmers.

  • Noxious weed and pest program, popular with farmers, is repealed. At a time when there is "an explosive spread of non-native weeds that may pose the most serious threat to natural biological systems in the West" (The Washington Post, November 6, 1995), H.R. 2542 repeals a popular weed and pest control program, and eliminates pest control measures as an acceptable conservation practice on CRP lands. (See H.R. 2542, Section 227.)
  • Eliminates funding for USDA county committees, hiring of local technical assistants, and other measures. In a broad-brush repeal of many soil and water conservation laws, H.R. 2542 eliminates funding authority for USDA county committees, prohibits hiring of temporary technical help, and eliminates other sensible and farmer-friendly provisions of current law. (See H.R. 2542, Section 223(a).) Not only does the bill merge NRCS with CFSA, it repeals funding authorization for the main NRCS technical assistance programs for farmers.

H.R. 2542 effectively repeals USDA's soil conservation compliance program.

  • A weak program gets even weaker. H.R. 2542 embodies a series of changes which will render federal soil conservation rules virtually meaningless. These rules are already poorly enforced. Nationwide, more than 60 percent of all counties reported no tracts of highly erodible land out of compliance from 1991 through 1993. Between 1986 and 1992, a total of $6.15 million nationwide in farm subsidies were withheld because of highly erodible land violations nationwide. During the same period U.S. farmers received more than $80.1 billion in direct farm subsidies -- meaning that less than one dollar out of 10,000 was withheld for soil erosion violations.
  • Soil conservation violations are based on a "five-year average". H.R. 2542 establishes that USDA will consider the five-year average of crop residue before determining that a producer is not in compliance. Even a serious violation would not necessarily subject a producer to penalties, provided that the producer was complying with soil conservation laws "on average." This requirement would create a mountainous paperwork, tracking and monitoring burden for USDA. (See H.R. 2542, Sec. 402(a)(2).)
  • Conservation plans may be impossible to enforce. H.R. 2542 removes the requirement that farmers document the erosion control practices implemented under a soil conservation plan. Without documentation, it would be impossible for USDA to know what conservation measures were applied to the field in previous years, to determine the average erosion rate over 5 years. (See H.R. 2542, Section 401(d)(3), 401(d)(6).)
  • Benefits could be withheld only for specific fields that are in violation. Under current law, a subsidy recipient who violates soil conservation requirements jeopardizes all of his or her farm subsidies. H.R. 2542 would limit the scope of conservation compliance penalties: only those subsidies relating to a field currently in violation could be withheld. (See H.R. 2542, Sec. 405.)
  • Federally-subsidized crop insurance no longer linked to soil conservation. Under current law, a soil conservation violation disqualifies a farmer from receiving federally-subsidized crop insurance from USDA. H.R. 2542 would sever the link between basic soil conservation and the USDA crop insurance program. (See H.R. 2542, Sec. 405(c).)
  • Requires technically impractical measures to measure crop residue. H.R. 2542 requires that USDA account for crop residue found within the top 2 inches of soil. Measuring crop residue below the surface is technically impractical, and creates additional burdens for enforcement of the program. (See H.R. 2542, Sec. 402(a)(2).)
  • Producers who "intend to comply" with their conservation plans are considered to be in compliance. Producers who make a "good-faith" effort to comply, but fail, are eligible for Federal subsidy benefits indefinitely. H.R. 2542 eliminates the one-out-of-five year current application of the policy under law and it also eliminates any reduction in benefits associated with the good-faith exemption. (See H.R. 2542, Sec. 404(a)(2).)

    The farmer-elected committee members (83 percent of whom receive subsidies themselves, nationwide) who oversee the operations of the Consolidated Farm Service Agency have veto power over the judgment of the Natural Resource Conservation Service. The farmer committee members may decide that a recipient made a good-faith effort to comply with their conservation plan, even if NRCS has already determined that there was no good-faith effort.

  • One-year "grace period" for violations. H.R. 2542 gives an automatic one-year "grace period" for good-faith violators to make an effort to comply with their conservation plans. (See H.R. 2542, Sec. 404(a)(2).)
  • Subsidy recipients police their own violations. Under current law, USDA is required to perform annual spot-checks on a small percentage of highly erodible fields. H.R. 2542 would end random spot checks, and require USDA to accept "third party" verification of a subsidy recipient's compliance records. (See H.R. 2542, Sec. 402(a)(2).)

H.R. 2542 weakens the Conservation Reserve Program.

  • Lowers erosion standards for land leaving the CRP. H.R. 2452 would lower the soil erosion standards for highly erodible land leaving the protection of the Conservation Reserve Program. The Conservation Reserve represents a $20 billion investment in soil conservation over the life of the program; farmers received nearly $13 billion in CRP payments from 1986 through 1994. (See Table 1.) In Mr. Allard's district alone, farmers will receive $820 million over the course of current CRP contracts. If land coming out of the CRP is subject to minimal erosion standards, all of the soil savings achieved at considerable taxpayer expense would be lost.

H.R. 2542 guts the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP).

  • Eliminates permanent protection. The WRP's permanent easements would be replaced by short-term contracts (no more than 15 years), similar to the Conservation Reserve. Short-term contracts are far more expensive in the long run than the WRP's long-term or permanent easements. Taxpayers would be forced to become perpetual renters in order to receive any lasting conservation benefits. (See H.R. 2542, Section 501.)
  • Cuts funding to create new subsidies for cattle feedlots. WRP payments would stretched out over the length of 15-year contracts, rather than paid in a single lump sum. CBO estimates that this will "save" money over the 7-year budget cycle (8 years of WRP payments are outside the budget forecasting window). These and other "savings" are put into a new subsidy for cattle feedlots (see below).

H.R. 2542 creates a new subsidy program for cattle feedlots.

  • Funding cuts from WRP go to new livestock subsidy program. Money "saved" from cutting the WRP is put into a new program to help livestock operations pay to clean up manure entering water bodies. (See H.R. 2542, Title III.) Cleaning up manure is an expense that should fall on the shoulders of feedlot owners, not taxpayers.
  • New feedlot manure program limits enrollment. Anyone receiving cost-share payments under the Conservation Reserve, Wetlands Reserve, Water Quality Incentives Program and other programs would be ineligible to receive payments under H.R. 2542's new "Livestock Water Quality Conservation Program." (See H.R. 2542, Section 303(b).)

Table 1: Nationwide, farmers have received nearly $13 billion in Conservation Reserve Program payments since 1986

Alabama $187,889,176
Alaska $9,502,956
Arizona $9,047
Arkansas $88,680,228
California $65,944,261
Colorado $657,943,880
Delaware $441,291
Florida $40,372,433
Georgia $202,167,176
Hawaii $135,520
Idaho $290,357,332
Illinois $398,264,018
Indiana $218,939,067
Iowa $1,361,183,328
Kansas $1,147,251,412
Kentucky $206,868,180
Louisiana $44,591,957
Maine $14,291,915
Maryland $9,129,316
Massachusetts $9,760
Michigan $109,102,620
Minnesota $820,601,523
Mississippi $251,681,222
Missouri $792,068,820
Montana $752,681,906
Nebraska $608,466,547
Nevada $772,970
New Jersey $266,802
New Mexico $160,127,222
New York $25,238,753
North Carolina $51,372,854
North Dakota $759,232,823
Ohio $154,453,010
Oklahoma $380,589,154
Oregon $211,699,763
Pennsylvania $41,627,304
South Carolina $88,226,823
South Dakota $492,358,967
Tennessee $187,395,215
Texas $1,245,530,787
Utah $74,484,354
Vermont $100,907
Virginia $28,794,183
Washington $403,974,073
West Virginia $237,012
Wisconsin $317,648,087
Wyoming $75,363,932
United States $12,978,069,886

Source: Environmental Working Group. Compiled from USDA data.

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