MITCHELL, S.D. (AP) — Republican U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem and Democratic challenger Matt Varilek repeatedly stressed the need for Congress to pass a new farm bill Wednesday but disagreed on who's to blame for it failing to reach the House floor.
Several hundred people gathered inside a packed tent and spilled out onto the outskirts at the Dakotafest farm show in Mitchell to hear the candidates spar mostly on agriculture issues during their first debate.
In July, the House Agriculture Committee, of which Noem is a member, approved a new five-year farm bill that would eliminate much-criticized direct payments, under which farmers are paid even when they don't plant a crop, to be replaced with new price and revenue support programs. The Senate passed companion legislation in June. But the bill has yet to make it to the House floor, and Congress is currently on a five-week recess.
Varilek said House members need to move away from the "my way or the highway" attitude that causes such gridlock and work together. He said Noem should be doing more to pressure leadership to bring the bill to the floor.
"Not only have they not passed a farm bill, they haven't even voted on a farm bill," Varilek said of the chamber to which he's seeking office.
Noem said she's been working hard to gather votes and work with House leaders.
Varilek said he prefers the Senate version of the farm bill, which has safety net provisions for commodity growers that are more favorable to corn and bean growers. He said the House version is tilted toward peanut and rice producers.
Noem said she likes the commodity title in the Senate version better than her chamber's product, but she dislikes how the Senate bill ties crop insurance to conservation compliance.
"We don't want to start down that path," she said. "That's the only safety net that our farmers have to depend on when they're in volatile situations like the drought that we have."
Noem added that improvements can be made when the two chambers work on a compromise in conference.
The candidates voiced their support of conservation programs, country-of-origin legislation and the renewable fuel standard, but got into a squabble when Varilek questioned oil companies' donations to her campaign.
"I'm willing to stand up to big oil companies who are the opponents funding the effort to weaken the RFS," Varilek said.
Noem said she's been a longtime supporter of ethanol, and opponents of renewable fuel standards are running a radio ad attacking her for supporting renewable fuels.
"If I'm friends with Big Oil, somebody forgot to tell them," she said.
On farm subsidy caps, Varilek said there should be a cap on farm payments to cover only family-scale farmers and ranchers, not larger operations that can afford to manage risk.
"We face a deficit, and we can't afford to subsidize everyone equally," he said.
Noem said she supports the caps that are in place, but a bigger threat to family farms is the estate tax, which she calls a "death tax."
She said if the tax is allowed to go back to a $1,000,000 exemption before being taxed at 55 percent, it will greatly affect farmers.
"It's devastating," she said. "It's going to keep people from passing their family farms onto their kids."
Varilek said he supports raising it to a level in which it wouldn't affect family farmers and ranchers in South Dakota.