WASHINGTON — When the House takes up a $171 billion farm bill this week, lawmakers will be debating two main questions: whether the program is affordable and whom its subsidies will mainly help.
Sponsors call it essential and urgently needed, especially by family farmers in distress.
"There are countless numbers of farmers who say this is the only way they can survive," said Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, who chairs the Agriculture Committee and is sponsoring the bill.
But others say a 10-year program of farm aid will only drain the evaporating budget surplus and that the payments are not helping the neediest farmers. Instead, they say, the program rewards large farmers and corporations, which receive most of the money.
Of this country's 2 million farmers, fewer than one-fourth received 84 percent of federal subsidy payments. That is $60.2 billion of the total of $71.5 billion from 1996 through 2000, according to data from the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit group supporting agricultural conservation. The group's analysis is based on Agriculture Department records.
Because the subsidies are based on how much land farmers own or on the size of the harvest, the payments favor the biggest farms. The average payment for the top 1 percent of recipients was $558,698 over five years; the average for the bottom 80 percent receiving subsidies was $5,830, according to the group.
The new House farm bill not only continues these payments but adds new ones, including a $3.5 billion peanut subsidy.
Now, to redirect some of that money to smaller farmers, efforts are being made to shift $20 billion of subsidy payments to conservation programs.
"So much resources go to so few producers in so few states that there are family farmers and entire regions that are shut out right now," said Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis.
In a poll this year, the University of Nebraska found widespread discontent about subsidies. A majority of rural Nebraskans surveyed favored keeping farm payments but limiting them to prevent larger farmers from pushing out the smaller family farmers.
"The biggest surprise was that 73 percent of rural Nebraskans, including farmers, believed there should be real limits put on those subsidies," said John C. Allen, a sociology professor who conducted the survey.
But with the dwindling budget surplus in doubt, Democrats in both houses, and a few Republicans, are questioning whether there is enough money to pay for any farm bill and say debate is premature.