Two U.S. Senators — Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) — are applying for federal money under a $12 billion bailout program set up by the White House to help farmers hurt by trade hostilities, spokespeople from their offices said.
Grassley pressed the Trump administration this spring to relieve farmers who have been pummeled by Chinese tariffs on their exports amid the wider trade war. Tester has also criticized the impact of the tariffs on farmers and called on the administration to help Montana ranchers.
The Agriculture Department confirmed last week it has already sent more than 7,800 bailout checks totaling over $25 million to farmers across the country. The assistance is intended to help farmers survive the trade war with China, which has dramatically widened in scope this month after the U.S. announced it would target another $200 billion in Chinese goods.
Grassley, a farmer for most of his life, defended his plan to seek bailout money and said he has been a consistent advocate for farmers. Grassley said in April that he warned Trump at a White House meeting of the harm being felt by farmers and ranchers and said the administration “has a responsibility to help those Americans and mitigate the damage it caused," according to a news release.
“Sen. Grassley participates in farm programs for which he is legally eligible, including this program, like every other farmer,” said the spokesman, Michael Zona. “Grassley receives no special treatment and is always transparent about his participation. As a family farmer, Sen. Grassley brings firsthand knowledge and experience on behalf of agriculture and rural America to the policymaking tables in Washington.”
There is no rule against a lawmaker receiving the aid. And 33 members of Congress — directly or through their immediate family members — received federal farming subsidies over the past two decades, amounting to a collective $15 million from 1995 to 2016, according to the Environmental Working Group, a watchdog group that probes agricultural subsidies.
Grassley and Tester are the only lawmakers of about two dozen contacted from that list who told The Washington Post they would apply for the new bailout money. Twelve members said they would not be applying, and 13 have either declined to comment or have not yet returned a request for comment. (The Post did not contact lawmakers who have since left Congress or had only received a few hundred dollars in farm subsidies.)
Grassley has said the bailout money offers important help for farmers in the short-term, but the administration’s priority should be on opening “markets and opportunity, not government handouts." Grassley did not meet with USDA or White House officials to draft the bailout program, a spokesman said. He also did not review the program or offer proposed revisions to it, the spokesman said.
The USDA has denied requests to make public the identities of those seeking or receiving bailout checks, citing the privacy of the farmers. A USDA spokesperson said in an email that “any farmer meeting eligibility requirements may apply for the program” and that the bailout package was designed by government economists.
Defenders of the bailout program say it will help farmers battered by Chinese tariffs weather the trade storm, while critics argue it is all but guaranteed to aid wealthier farmers who already receive substantial government assistance. The Trump administration put tariffs on China starting this July, and China has retaliated, putting tariffs on sensitive American farm exports, among other products.
The USDA bailout program caps maximum payments at a combined $125,000 for dairy and hog production, as well as a combined $125,000 for corn, cotton, sorghum, soybeans and wheat, according to the USDA’s website.
The USDA’s eligibility requirements also bar those with over $900,000 in annual income from receiving bailout money. Couples filing jointly could seek bailout money if they have under $1.8 million in annual income.
Scott Faber, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Environmental Working Group, argued the senators' participation in the bailout program shows how it will help affluent farmers.
“Many taxpayers would be shocked to learn members of Congress who are receiving what by any measure is a lot of money are now also receiving a bailout check ostensibly designed to help struggling farmers,” Faber said. “It underscores exactly what’s wrong with the bailout program — that many of the recipients of farm bailout funding are doing just fine.”
Asked to respond to Faber’s criticism, Grassley’s office pointed to the senator’s advocacy to close loopholes that allow people who are not farmers to claim farm subsidies. For years, Grassley has led efforts to cut federal farm subsidies he has said go to too many people not actively involved in farming operations.
“The recently announced aid package by the Trump administration allows farmers to sign up for assistance based on set guidelines that are the same for everyone,” his office said in a statement. “Additionally, since the threat of retaliatory tariffs against agricultural products, Senator Grassley has made clear several times to President Trump that farmers want markets, not aid.”
Arlan Suderman, chief commodities economist at INTL FCStone, said there was little way for the White House bailout program to avoid benefiting wealthier farmers given that only 150,000 farmers produce about 90 percent of the nation’s crops.
“If you want to protect that sector of the economy, the assistance needs to go to those 150,000 farmers,” Suderman said.
Grassley grows both corn and soybean crops but like other farmers will not be applying until after they are harvested, his office said. Grassley’s farm consists of about 750 acres, which means his bailout check could range somewhere between a few hundred dollars to $34,000, depending how much of his crops are soybeans, Faber said, in an analysis based on 2017 numbers.
Tester has already filled out the application for assistance under the program, said Marnee Banks, a spokeswoman. Tester was unable to sell half of his 2017 wheat crop because of a “lack of access to markets,” Banks said.
“Like most Montana farmers, [Tester] is feeling the impacts of the escalating trade war,” Banks said in an email. “Jon is frustrated with the lack of certainty in the marketplace and is calling for an end to the tariffs that are hurting producers across America.”
One member of Congress, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), said through a spokesman he did not qualify for the bailout program because he does not maintain “active engagement” in running the farm. That is defined for some kinds of farm operations as working more than 500 hours a year.
Grassley does qualify as being actively engaged “because he owns the land. He also goes home to the farm, does labor and still handles many of the management decisions,” a spokesman said.
Grassley has received more than $360,000 in commodity subsidies in 21 years, according to the Environmental Working Group. Tester has received $252,798 in farm subsidies over that same period of time, the Environmental Working Group found.
A number of farmers have recently complained the bailouts set up by USDA are inadequate to compensate their losses in the trade war. Corn and wheat producers in particular say the USDA’s method of allocating damages dramatically undercounts what they have suffered.