Congressional negotiators are currently debating a provision inside the long-delayed farm bill that could extend lucrative farm subsidies to the "nieces, nephews, first cousins and their spouses."
After months of hold-ups, Congress is negotiating the final farm bill, which could reach the floor as soon as this week. One of the final issues being hammered out is a controversial expansion of farm subsidies that critics say would enable extended family members to receive subsidies, even if they don't live or work directly on the farm.
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The farm bill is a colossal piece of legislation that sets the eating and farming policy of the United States, including crop insurance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- colloquially referred to as SNAP or food stamps -- and proposed changes to federal forest management policies. The previous, 2014 farm bill expired September 30.
The House and Senate separately passed their versions of the farm bill in June, and are now locked in conference to hash out the final bill. The Senate bill did not expand the subsidy eligibilities, while the House bill included a provision by the House Agricultural Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, a Texas Republican, that does.
Current law allows the children, siblings and spouses of farmers to receive subsidies up to $125,000 if they have an ownership stake in the farm and are "actively engaged" in the farming operations. But that provision is vague, and does not require the "actively engaged" family members to live or work on the farm. Remote management, such as overseeing payroll or marketing, can be considered active engagement.
The USDA states that management must be "critical to the profitability of the farming operation," but according to the Environmental Working Group, a simple conference call can prove "active engagement" and almost a quarter of farm subsidy recipients do not physically work on the farm they receive subsidies for.
The Government Accountability Office found that in 2015, $260 million in subsidies were paid out to those who qualified as "active personal management."
"Adding new branches to the farm subsidy family tree will inevitably lead to even more city slickers getting subsidies," said Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group.
Under a provision added by Conaway, a farmer's extended family and their spouses, including "'first cousins, nieces, nephews," would become eligible for subsidies. Those subsidies wouldn't be paid directly to the family members, but rather would increase the total amount of subsidies a farm would be eligible for.
In June, Conaway defended the subsidy expansion in a statement to CNN saying, "if a farm is large and complex enough to require multiple individuals' participation to be successful, then Washington should not attempt to place an arbitrary one-size-fits-all approach on them."
A source close to the House Agriculture Committee defended paying subsidies to family members working remotely, saying, "farming today isn't sitting on a tractor or working the fields; it can be marketing your crop, managing your labor, all of the things that a normal business does. All of those things are management actives, and they are no less important to farming than any other type of activity."
Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, have been some of the most vocal opponents of expanding the subsidies.
In a statement to CNN, Grassley said, "the changes being proposed to the family farm loophole would allow more taxpayer money to go to people who aren't even farming. Anyone who really farms has no problem qualifying under the current rules. We should not be expanding loopholes in the new farm bill."
Grassley's support for the bill could be crucial to its passing, and he previously voted against the 2014 farm bill in protest of the final bill's removal of his restrictions of subsidies.
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