Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns says the Bush administration is willing to work with Congress to find other ways to reduce farm program spending besides changing payment limits.

In comments before the Senate Appropriations Committee April 12, Johanns acknowledged that some lawmakers have been less than kind in their criticism of the payment limit language in the president's fiscal 2006 budget proposal.

“We believe the president presented a budget that has some reasonable suggestions for reducing the costs of our farm programs,” said Johanns. “However, we acknowledge that many of these policy proposals, such as the reduction in the payment limit, are quite sensitive.

“We recognize Congress may have other proposals to achieve these savings, and we are willing to work with the Congress on other cost savings recommendations.”

Although farm-state lawmakers were quick to applaud what they saw as a retreat on farm program payments, a spokesman for USDA said Johanns still supports the call in the president's budget to tighten payment limits.

“We have not, nor do we intend to withdraw that proposal, which we think is a very reasonable and important part of achieving our main goal to reduce the budget deficit in half by 2009,” the spokesman said. “We need to do that to have continued prosperity in the farm economy over the long run.”

One of the staunchest critics of the payment limit proposal, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., said the secretary's statement indicated the Bush administration was “finally getting the message” that the budget cuts unfairly impact southern row crop farmers.

“Perhaps the administration has begun to hear the roar from the heartland,” said Lincoln.“Secretary Johanns comments are welcome news for southern row crop farmers, and, if he and President Bush are willing to readdress their budget recommendations, then I look forward to working with them to achieve a more equitable compromise.”

Rep. Henry Bonilla, the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee chairman from Texas, also welcomed the change in policy, which he said came after prolonged discussions between administration officials, Bonilla and other members of Congress.

“I'm pleased the administration has heard the concerns of farm state members such as myself,” Bonilla said. “This is an important first step in working with the administration to insure a viable future for agriculture.”

The original USDA budget announced by Johanns on Feb. 7 proposed sharp cuts in agriculture programs throughout the nation, but would have hit southern row crops especially hard, said Bonilla.

The budget proposal would have lowered the payment limit cap for individuals, eliminated the three-entity rule and changed a farmer's eligibility for marketing loans. In a study published by Texas A&M University for the USDA's Payment Limits Commission in 2003, researchers at the Agriculture and Food Policy Center found that payment limits would force many family farmers out of business.

Under pressure from Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the Senate passed a budget resolution that reduced the president's proposed cuts from $5.3 billion to $2.8 billion, but the House version left the reductions at $5.7 billion.

“As long as I serve as chairman of the subcommittee, I'll do everything within my power to protect Texas farmers and ranchers,” said Bonilla. “It's never easy to lobby against the administration, but in this case it was for the good of our farmers and provided a positive effect for all involved. Secretary Johanns and the USDA recognize that our federal government should not punish certain states based on the crops they produce.”

Lincoln cautioned that the president's budget still includes numerous cuts that directly affect the quality of life of rural Americans and pledged to remain vocal in her opposition to his budget.

“Overall, it unfairly rests the deficit reduction burden on the backs of working families,” said Lincoln, adding that cuts in funding for local and state law enforcement and first responders, along with cuts in economic development initiatives that specifically benefit communities in Arkansas, will be detrimental to rural America.