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Agriculture authorization bills are winding their way through Congress. That is prompting contentious debate about farm subsidies and regulations, but it could also have a significant impact on the Chesapeake Bay. Alex Bolton — senior staff writer for The Hill newspaper — has been reporting on concerns from Maryland's Congressional delegation, especially Maryland Senator Ben Cardin. Rebecca Blatt spoke with Bolton earlier about what the farm bill could mean for our area.
How could a farm bill affect the Chesapeake Bay?
"Maryland Senators are concerned that the farm bill could wind up cutting money for Maryland farmers, and that it would affect preservation of the Chesapeake. What the current Senate farm bill would do is consolidate the special programs for the Chesapeake. This is being done under the guise of cracking down on earmarks, which have become a bad word on Capitol Hill. So by consolidating these special programs for great bodies of water, the concern is that funding for conservation and wastewater treatment would be eliminated or cut significantly."
Why is that considered an earmark?
"It's considered an earmark because these are special programs set up for the Chesapeake. Just as they are for other great bodies of water, like Lake Michigan, for instance. So, the trend in Congress right now is to eliminate these special programs' special funding designations. Earmarks are thought of as pet projects which are done to help lawmakers in their local districts. Often they are thought of as not entirely meritorious. They're seen as little gifts to voters, or ways for members of Congress to build their influence or popularity in their districts."
"Senator Cardin says this is not what is happening with special programs affecting the Chesapeake Bay. He says this is a great body of water — it's shared by several states. It's not a parochial backyard issue, like some other earmark projects in the past."
What are area Senators, including Senator Cardin, doing to try to influence how this bill is being put together?
"They're just starting to look at it. There have been a lot of other priorities that local lawmakers have been concerned about. The closure of postal processing facilities, they're concerned about public transit funds that are being held up in a House-Senate dispute. This is something that they're starting to make more of a priority as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be bringing this bill to the floor in the weeks ahead."
There's more to talk about than just funding for the Chesapeake Bay. What other contentious issues could be holding this bill up?
"This is usually a fight in the Congress, because it spends a lot of money and also subsidizes various crops. So you have battles between farm state Senators and fiscal conservatives who say that government should not be in the business of subsidizing farms and crop programs. On the other hand, you have battles between farm state Senators of different regions. Those from the Midwest, who support corn and wheat, and those from the South, who support rice, have different interests. That is why this is usually a contentious bill. That's why it's up in the air whether they can have this finished by the end of the year."