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Farmers get billions in virus aid, and Democrats are wary

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON — Cotton farmers were paid 33 times as much in federal subsidies in 2019 as the income they actually lost to trade disruptions, one study showed.

Farmers in Georgia, the home state of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, were paid more in federal aid per acre than anywhere else in the nation, another found.

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Some farms collected millions of dollars in payments despite a limit of $250,000 per farmer.

The Trump administration’s $28 billion effort in 2018 and 2019 to compensate farmers for losses from its trade wars has been criticized as excessive, devised on the fly and tilted toward states politically important to Republicans. Now the administration is starting to send farmers tens of billions more to offset losses from the coronavirus pandemic, raising questions about how the money will be allocated and whether there is sufficient oversight to guard against partisan abuse of the program.

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Months before an election in which some farm states are major battlegrounds, Democrats and other critics of the administration’s agriculture policies are expressing concern that the new subsidies, provided by Congress with bipartisan backing, could be doled out to ensure President Donald Trump continues to win the backing of one of his key voting blocs.

Given the track record with the trade relief program, “I think Congress should be concerned in terms of letting USDA just write checks with no oversight,” said Joseph W. Glauber, a top economist with the department for 22 years who is now with the International Food Policy Research Institute.

“Are these programs politically motivated? The short answer is yes,” he said.

Bill Northey, the Agriculture Department undersecretary who oversees the aid, denied that underlying political motivations influenced how either the trade or coronavirus programs were planned or rolled out, saying “nothing could be further from the truth.”

The Agriculture Department has set aside $16 billion for relief from economic damage caused by the pandemic. But both administration officials and many members of Congress consider that only a down payment on farm losses that some estimate could climb to $40 billion, and the department will have billions more at its disposal to spend as of next month.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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