Attempting to keep automatic spending cuts from taking effect on March 1, Senate Democrats, with White House backing, have proposed an alternative to the sequester.

Without congressional action, in coming weeks federal agencies will be forced to implement $85 billion across-the-board cuts as part of $1.2 trillion in cuts mandated over the next 10 years.

In key ways the Democrat’s proposal hews closely to the farm bill passed by the Senate last summer. The “alternative sequester” would mean an end to direct payments, which were part of the 2008 farm bill extension passed in early January.

Ending direct payments would provide some $31 billion. Democrats would use $3.5 billion for disaster assistance and to fund programs left out of the aforementioned farm bill extension. The $27 billion-plus left would go to deficit reduction.

“In agriculture, we’re being very serious about evaluating government spending and setting priorities for taxpayers as well as farmers and ranchers,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, during a Thursday (Feb. 14) afternoon press conference. “In the process of writing the farm bill (in 2012) and evaluating what made sense to spend taxpayer dollars on, we agreed on a bipartisan basis that direct payments didn’t make sense, that we shouldn’t be providing a subsidy to farmers during good times of high prices or when they didn’t have a loss.

Risk-based system

“We moved to a risk-based, market-based system that saved money but also makes a lot more sense.”

Having just returned from a series of meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Randy Veach, Arkansas Farm Bureau president, said farmers should continue with plans to begin signing up for farm programs on Feb. 19.

In explaining the alternative proposal, “Sen. Reid said he’d take away direct payments for the 2014 through the 2023 farm bill. Obviously absent in that is he didn’t attack the direct payments in the 2013 (farm bill) extension. That gives us a little more certainty that we will get those direct payments (this year).”

A vote on the proposal is expected the week after Congress returns from the President’s Day break.

Reaction to the plan from farm and rural interest groups was quick and mixed.

“We applaud (Senate Leader Harry Reid) for proposing to fix the fiscally irresponsible and unfair farm bill extension that was slapped together behind closed doors at the end of 2012,” said Ferd Hoefner, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Policy Director.

“The package outlined today is a first step toward restoring both a sane fiscal policy and a fair farm bill extension. With that in mind, the sustainable agriculture community calls on House, Senate, and White House leaders to work immediately toward a deal that averts or substantially modifies the sequester and corrects the farm bill extension so that it actually extends the full farm bill while beginning the long overdue job of reforming subsidies.”

Meanwhile, Andrew Grobmyer, executive vice-president of the Agriculture Council of Arkansas, was clearly displeased with the proposal. “The Agricultural Council of Arkansas strongly opposes the Stabenow proposal to eliminate direct payments as part of a ‘sequestration alternative.’ Eliminating this important program for farmers without a viable safety net alternative for this region is irresponsible and damaging to Arkansas agriculture.

“We would hope that Congress would be wise enough to not eliminate these important programs without providing alternative risk management tools for producers in Arkansas.Chairman Stabenow’s plan as proposed will undoubtedly cause substantial harm to farmers, rural banks and agribusinesses, and rural economies in Arkansas.”