WASHINGTON (B)--Lawmakers have $5.5 billion to give to U.S. farmers in fiscal 2001, but producers may not get the money through the traditional distribution method, which is based on historical production data, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-IA, said June 5. He said Senate hearings will be held soon to debate new ways to send out checks this year.

Harkin told reporters that Sen. Herb Kohl, D-WI, as the new chairman of the Senate Appropriation subcommittee on agriculture, will likely be the first to schedule hearings on distributing the $5.5 billion of supplemental financial assistance to farmers this year.

Harkin is expected to be the new chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee after Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords switched from the Republican Party to independent status, tipping control of the Senate to the Democrats. Harkin will replace Sen. Richard Lugar, R-IN, who has previously defended history-based Agricultural Marketing Transition Act (AMTA) payments as a disbursement method.

"It is not based upon anything other than what (farmers) had twenty years ago and most of it goes to the bigger farmer who may not need all that much help," the Iowa senator said.

Republicans have long said AMTA, a creation of the 1996 Farm Act, is the best way to get money to farmers because it is quick.

Harkin said he disagrees with that philosophy. He said a new method needs to be created to distribute the money Congress has for farmers this year, even if it is slower.

"It might take a little bit longer to get out...but I do not think shotgunning all that money out there is the best public policy," he said. "Have (AMTA payments) helped keep farming afloat? Yeah. But they have done it in a very unfair...way."

USDA Secretary Ann Veneman has spoken out several times in recent months against legislating a specific amount of supplemental financial assistance for farmers this year. She insisted lawmakers should instead set up a "contingency fund" to help agriculture producers in times of need.

Harkin did not detail any specific new proposals on how to distribute the $5.5 billion to farmers this year, but he did say for a long-term solution he favored setting up a counter-cyclical method that increases or decreases payments depending on farm income levels.

"As part of the farm bill, we are going to look at more of a counter-cyclical type of a payment and one that is based upon actual production and actual farming rather than what you did 20 years ago," he told reporters.

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