By Chris Casteel
Sen. Tom Coburn hopes to block federal payments to dead farmers, funding for handcrafted cheeses and rural development loans for golf courses when the Senate today resumes discussing the farm bill.
Action on the five-year farm bill, which sets policy for crop subsidies, conservation programs and nutrition assistance, stalled in the Senate last week over a partisan dispute about what types of amendments should be allowed.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., tried to limit amendments to those related directly to farm and nutrition programs, but Republicans argued the legislation should be open for all types of proposals.
It remains to be seen whether an agreement can be reached and progress made on the bill in the limited time left for legislative action this year. Current farm programs technically expired in September, but Congress can continue them indefinitely until a new farm bill is approved.
Coburn, R-Muskogee, is targeting farm and nutrition spending. He is leaving it to other senators to tackle such matters as the complex tangle of subsidy payments and how much farm couples can collect in a given year.
Instead, Coburn is going after relatively low-profile items: "artisanal" cheese centers, a program to preserve aging barns, U.S. Agriculture Department travel for conferences and construction of a "Chinese garden" in Washington.
Policy pays the dead even years later
Coburn also wants to change federal policy for sending crop subsidy payments to deceased farmers.
The General Accountability Office reported last summer that the Agriculture Department had paid out $1.1 billion over seven years to the estates of dead farmers, some of whom had been deceased for several years.
Regulations allow payments to be made to estates up to two years after a farmer's death, under certain conditions, but the Agriculture Department is required to ensure the estates are not being kept active just to collect the payments.
The General Accounting Office, Congress' auditing arm, found that the Agriculture Department had not determined whether 40 percent of the estates studied were eligible for the payments, even though a few had received more than $500,000.
After the report came out, Agriculture Department officials vowed to monitor estates better, but Coburn wants to tighten the regulations and prohibit payments to an estate one year after a farmer's death.
"This ensures fairness to the surviving family members of farmers, to other farmers who rely on federal assistance and to taxpayers who fund federal farm programs," Coburn spokesman John Hart said.
Blocking artisinal cheese centers'
Coburn also hopes to strike a provision in the bill that would create "artisanal cheese centers to provide educational and technical assistance relating to the manufacture and marketing of artisanal cheese by small- and medium-sized producers and businesses."
Hart said, "Handcrafted cheeses may add flavor to the next social event, but federal funding of artisanal cheese centers is completely unnecessary."
Another of Coburn's amendments would limit the types of rural development projects that could be backed by government guaranteed loans.
Ag agency complaints
According to Sen. Tom Coburn, the Agriculture Department has provided loan money for golf courses, a hotel with an indoor water park, ski resorts and an American Indian casino.
A $1.8 million loan for a golf course in Georgia is in default, Coburn said, and taxpayers will have to pay part of the tab.
Coburn's amendment would prohibit loans for golf courses, resorts and casinos.
Coburn said those projects are a distraction from the Agriculture Department's core mission.