The Fat of the Land

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A PROPOSAL making its way to the House floor would hurt everyone from the average American taxpayer to the struggling African farmer. It would enrich a small number of big businesses in a few dozen congressional districts. It would claim money that could otherwise go to priorities the Democratic majority supposedly champions: environmental conservation, student loans, Head Start, food stamps or children's health insurance. Even President Bush wants to reprioritize the spending.

So what will the Democratic leadership do about it?

Last week a panel of the House Agriculture Committee snubbed a growing group of lawmakers critical of federal farm payouts by reapproving a massive system of subsidies in place since 2002, the last time Congress thoroughly examined agricultural policy. The 2002 farm bill is a monument to craven interest politics and federal waste. Its commodity supports are too often misdirected: High-income farmers collect increasing shares of the largess, and, by The Post's calculations, between 2000 and 2006 about $1.3 billion went to Americans who do not farm at all.

These payouts distort domestic markets for crops and cropland to favor large agribusinesses over smaller outfits. They affect international crop prices, undercutting poor nations' economies and derailing vital world trade talks. Indeed, Brazilian and Indian trade negotiators recently indicated that even Mr. Bush's proposed cap on subsidy spending would not be enough to get the Doha round of talks back on track. And the system has cost more than $70 billion since 2002 -- hardly the model of good government on which the Democrats ran in 2006.

The panel's vote suggests that the farm bloc in the House plans to "circle the wagons" to defend subsidy programs, as Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) put it Tuesday. On the other side are lawmakers such as Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who introduced a much more attractive proposal to phase out certain farm payouts. This could lead to a bloody battle on the House floor this year.

The question is whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and others in the Democratic leadership can craft a compromise that reflects common sense, not political pressure from the farm bloc, as they try to avert a caucus-cleaving floor fight. At the least, that means moving money out of commodity support to fund other priorities in the Agriculture Department budget, such as conservation and nutrition. A "compromise" that contains little meaningful subsidy reform, on the other hand, would be a failure of policy and of leadership. So would temporarily extending the current farm bill as time to reauthorize the legislation runs out.

Mr. Bush, who proposed a series of solid changes to the crop payouts system this year, can and should assist by pushing harder to slash subsidies and funnel the savings into worthier programs. Will the House Democratic leadership and the president stand by their principles, or will the crop subsidy racket continue?

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