By Paul C. Barton, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Tennessee's congressional Republicans usually find themselves on the same page as think tanks and advocacy organizations that call for restraining government spending.
But in the case of setting federal agricultural policy for coming years through a farm bill, these organizations find the positions of most Tennessee Republicans unpalatable.
"Taken as a whole, this legislation (the House farm bill) is a far cry from the free-market reforms that would allow farming to flourish, give consumers a fair shake and protect taxpayers from excessive spending," the National Taxpayers Union wrote in one of its analyses.
The bill's 10-year cost was almost $1 trillion.
Taxpayers for Common Sense added: "While the rest of the country has been in the economic doldrums for the past few years, farm country has seen record profits. The House Agriculture Committee's reaction to this scenario: layer on more agriculture subsidies that would put taxpayers on the hook for guaranteeing those record profits for years to come."
The Senate's version fared no betters in reviews.
"Both bills offset the benefits of eliminating (some) programs by adding new farm subsidy programs that could prove to be even costlier than the programs they are replacing," the right-leaning Heritage Foundation said.
Other conservative sources denouncing both versions of the farm bill ranged from Americans for Prosperity, founded by David and Charles Koch, to the Club for Growth.
The budget-busting worries of these groups matched those of many of the lawmakers who helped defeat the House bill when it came to a floor vote Thursday. The Senate, though, passed its version earlier this month.
While there is uncertainty over what happens next, the versions of the farm bill offered so far have garnered support of seven of the nine Republicans in the congressional delegation -- Reps. Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump, Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood, Diane Black of Gallatin, Scott DesJarlais of Jasper, Scott Fleischmann of Ooltewah, and Phil Roe of Johnson City. And Sen. Lamar Alexander voted for his chamber's version.
Among Tennessee Republicans, only Rep. John Duncan Jr. of Knoxville and Sen. Bob Corker voted the way farm bill critics preferred.
"For a bill that spends close to one trillion dollars, just under $18 billion in savings is not nearly enough,'' Corker said.
Both Democrats in the delegation -- Reps. Jim Cooper of Nashville and Steve Cohen of Memphis -- voted against the bill, but Democrats had slightly different reasons for opposing the legislation. They especially disliked a $20 billion cut in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, in the House bill.
"It would have cut programs that help children and seniors while protecting subsidies for millionaires, agribusiness and even foreign banks," Cooper said. "We must do a better job of protecting taxpayer dollars and prioritizing our nation's agricultural policies."
As it happened, advocates for the poor and the environment joined the conservative and anti-government spending groups in opposition.
One of them, the Environmental Working Group, is known for tracking how specific farm subsidies and other agricultural benefits get dispersed nationwide, including to Fincher and other members of Congress who are farmers.
Sitting on the House Agriculture Committee along with DesJarlais, Fincher attracted a wave of unfavorable publicity last month when he cited Bible verses as justification for supporting cuts in foods stamps. The Tennessee member invoked 2 Thessalonians 3:10 -- "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat."
Meanwhile, Fincher was quoted as saying the House bill showed restraint by ending direct payments to farmers. The Crockett County farmer has received $3.48 million in subsidies since 1999, according to EWG.
But EWG said the bill did continue direct payments to cotton farmers such as Fincher for two more years. And Taxpayers for Common Sense said it added a new "entitlement" program for cotton farmers as well.
Fincher declined to answer repeated requests for comment on specifics of the legislation, but said in a statement: "I cannot overstate my disappointment in Congress's failure to pass a farm bill. (The) failure is a clear indication of just how out of touch Washington is with the hard-working farmers across our country."
Conservative organizations joined EWG in blasting another part of the bill -- its substitution of expanded federal crop insurance for many of the direct payments.
Crop insurance protects growers from price declines as well as weather disasters. In fact, some aspects of the insurance would have protected up to 90 percent of their revenue.
"The price tag for taxpayers is skyrocketing and needs to be reined in," the Heritage Foundation said.
Since 2006, federal expenditures on crop insurance have more than doubled from $3.6 billion a year to $7.6 billion, the think tank said. And by 2022 under the House bill, it said, the figure would have reached $9 billion annually.
Duncan spokesman Patrick Newton said: "The crop insurance program has turned into a huge taxpayer-funded boon for some of the biggest multi-national insurance companies and multi-millionaire corporate farmers. Congressman Duncan introduced a bill earlier this year to reduce the amount of taxpayer dollars used to subsidize crop insurance. The farm bill doesn't have much to do with small farmers anymore."
Despite criticisms from conservative groups, others in the delegation defended their votes:
- Roe: "The Farm Bill, while far from perfect, is a step in the right direction. When you operate under extensions, you miss the opportunity to review and debate programs. You also pass on the opportunity to cut spending . I support the Farm Bill because it cuts nearly $40 billion in spending, improves safety nets for farmers while removing outdated, ineffective ones and consolidates duplicative, wasteful programs."
- Alexander: It would save taxpayers $18 billion compared to current programs. The senator also praised the legislation for "providing certainty to farmers" who contribute "tens-of-billions of dollars each year to the state's economy."
- Blackburn: Also cited giving farmers "the certainty and predictability they deserve." She said it "ends subsidies, makes reforms, and cuts food stamps by taking the initial steps in eligibility reform."
- DesJarlais: "This legislation would have made $20.5 billion in cuts to the food stamp program (over 10 years), the first substantial welfare reform since 1996." And DesJarlais too said it gave farmers "certainty and stability."
- Black: Said it was "a fiscally responsible, long-term solution," adding, "One thing is certain -- I will continue fighting for a farm bill that protects Tennessee farmers and taxpayer dollars."
Contact Paul C. Barton at firstname.lastname@example.org