* Big Republican gains mean pressure for big spending cuts
* Anti-spending mood may imperil ethanol tax breaks
* Farm bill debate becomes more complex, delay to 2012
* New chairmen in House and Senate.
By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON, Nov 3 U.S. lawmakers will face
increasing pressure to constrain spending on farm subsidy
programs, possibly as part of government-wide austerity, in the
wake of large Republican gains in the mid-term elections.
At its most extreme, the budget-cutting could push millions
of acres back into production by slashing long-term reserves
that idle 10 percent of U.S. cropland. The deficit-cutting mood
also imperils extension of ethanol tax breaks worth $6 billion
Here is how the elections could affect agricultural issues:
NEWCOMERS SEEN DEMANDING SPENDING CUTS
Republicans gained at least 60 seats, and control of the
House, partly on their promise to cut spending by $100 billion
a year. An ambitious GOP majority could seek the deepest cuts
to mandatory programs in 15 years. Republicans gained at least
six seats in the Senate but not a majority.
Farm supports are the most vulnerable of Agriculture
Department programs, say farm lobbyists. Nutrition programs
account for the bulk of spending but have many defenders. Farm
groups feud over the $5 billion a year in "direct payments" but
the likely new leader of House Agriculture Committee likes it.
Land reserves traditionally have less support than crop
subsidies when lawmakers must choose between them. Corn and
soybean output could rise 3 percent and wheat 7 percent if land
reserves are cut one-third. The 2008 farm law cut Conservation
Reserve enrollment by 18 percent.
Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, of North
Dakota, would be in position to buffer ag cuts somewhat.
TAX BREAKS FOR ETHANOL "AN UPHILL BATTLE"
The "lame duck" session of Congress in late November will be
the best chance to extend ethanol tax breaks before they expire
and the new anti-spending lawmakers take office in January.
"It remains an uphill battle," said Bob Dinneen of the
trade group Renewable Fuels Association. With a long-term
extension of the credits out of reach, the industry seeks a
one-year renewal at a lower rate as the first step to reform of
supports. It also hopes to keep an import tariff.
Expiring on Dec 31 are a 45-cent a gallon tax credit for
ethanol blenders, a 54-cent a gallon tariff on imported ethanol
and a 10-cent a gallon small-producer tax credit.
Also in question are incentives for cellulosic ethanol,
tapped as the new-generation fuel that would replace corn
ethanol as the largest biofuel. Output is a trickle nowadays.
If cellulosic ethanol thrives, the grass and woody biomass
crops that are its feedstocks would compete with corn,
soybeans, wheat and cotton for U.S. farmland.
FARM BILL SEEN GETTING MORE COMPLICATED
House and Senate Agriculture committee leaders either must
write one bill that combines budget cuts and farm policy or two
separate bills, possibly in separate years.
Frank Lucas, the Oklahoma Republican expected to chair the
House Agriculture Committee, would postpone the farm bill until
2012. Some senators also want to wait for 2012.
Congress combined budget cuts and farm bills in 1990 and
1996. The 1996 law ended most federal controls over what
farmers grow, a free-market policy still in effect.
The farm program assures a minimum price for grains, cotton
and oilseeds, with USDA making up the difference between market
prices and the support price. If returns are below targets set
by law, it automatically makes additional payments.
Overall, subsidies buffer low market prices and the
resulting drop in income, which could constrain purchases of
chemicals, seeds and machinery and weaken land prices.
Crop subsidies are forecast for $7 billion this fiscal
year. Land stewardship is an additional $2 billion-$3 billion.
NEW LEADERSHIP COMING
New chairmen will be installed in the House and Senate
Agriculture Committees. In the House, Lucas will succeed
Democrat Collin Peterson of Minnesota as Agriculture chairman.
Lucas says the 2012 farm law should be patterned on the current
program and says the direct payment is important in regions
with harsher climates.
Three Democrats -- Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Kent Conrad
of North Dakota and Ben Nelson of Nebraska -- are in line to
chair the Senate Agriculture Committee following defeat of
Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, first woman to lead the panel.
The decision will depend on who argues hardest for the job
when senators meet in coming weeks to elect leaders. Stabenow
has the clearest path but Conrad has the most seniority.
Most farm-state lawmakers like the crop-subsidy structure
now in place but they will face a financial squeeze. Money runs
out for three dozen programs, including wetlands protection and
for a disaster relief fund.
Crop insurance, crop subsidies and land stewardship are the
three major line items. Lawmakers might pare them to free money
for other uses, eliminate part or all of some programs, or
rewrite the farm support system altogether, the choice in 1996
to marry policy and limited funds.
(Editing by David Gregorio)