This vote was on an amendment that would bar federal conservation programs from making payments to individuals who make more than $1 million per year.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) offered the amendment during consideration of a bill that authorizes federal programs that assist farmers and low-income Americans. Sen. Coburn’s amendment would affect federal programs that pay landowners to preserve their land as habitat for wildlife and natural vegetation rather than farm or otherwise develop it. The amendment would end these conservation programs for individuals whose annual income – before taxes but including some tax deductions – exceeds $1 million.
Sen. Coburn argued that Congress should be focused on reducing the federal budget deficit. A good place to start is cutting payments to millionaires, he said.
“There is nothing wrong with conservation programs, but most often these payments are paid in addition to what people are going to do anyway,” Sen. Coburn said. “So what the Department of Agriculture has done is given well over $180 million to millionaires through our conservation payment on programs they would have otherwise done themselves.”
No senators spoke in opposition to Sen. Coburn’s amendment. However, environmental groups and some members of Congress have argued that conservation payments should not be withheld from wealthy farmers because they provide a valuable incentive to set aside land for wildlife habitat and environmental protection. In a 2007 debate over a similar amendment in the House of Representatives, then-Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-FL) noted that if farmers in his district lost access to conservation payments, they would respond by growing more crops at the expense of the environment.
“In Florida, we are fighting to protect our environment. We've spent billions to preserve the Everglades,” Rep. Mahoney said during the 2007 debate. “These new, more restrictive limits will disincent Florida ranchers and growers from investing with the federal government to preserve our lands and clean our waters.”
The Senate approved Sen. Coburn’s amendment by a vote of 62-37. Voting “yea” were 46 Republicans and 16 Democrats. Voting “nay” were 37 Democrats, including a majority of progressives. As a result, the Senate moved forward with legislation that would bar federal conservation programs from making payments to individuals who make more than $1 million per year.