Democrats Divided Over Farm Bill Changes

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said he
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said he "cannot support a farm bill that ignores the need for reform." (By Martial Trezzini -- Keystone Via Associated Press)
By Dan Morgan
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 14, 2007

When freshman Ohio Democrat Zack Space replaced veteran Republican Rep. Robert W. Ney after the 2006 elections, groups lobbying for a major revamping of farm subsidy programs were elated.

House Democrats, with their base in urban areas and coastal regions, were not beholden to programs weighted toward large commercial farmers in the grain and cotton belts. And Space's eastern Ohio district of small and medium-size farms was far down the list of those receiving government farm payments.

But, as the House Agriculture Committee prepares to take up a new five-year farm bill on Tuesday, Space, one of nine freshmen Democrats on the panel, is opposing major changes in the traditional price and income support programs that in 2006 paid farmers $19 billion.

"I'm not in the reform camp," he said. "I'm with the farmers back home who are generally satisfied with the commodity program we have now."

Space's resistance to change highlights the struggle within the Democratic Party as the farm bill moves to center stage on Congress's legislative agenda. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) have told Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) that they will not support a "status quo" bill.

A coalition of Democratic-leaning environmental organizations, anti-poverty groups and church organizations are pushing to redirect some subsidies to conservation, wetlands preservation, rural development and nutrition. But top Democrats are reluctant to push too hard for changes that could put at risk Democratic freshmen from "red" states, which backed President Bush's reelection in 2004 and where the farm vote is still a factor in close elections.

At stake in the new farm bill are billions of dollars affecting the fortunes of farmers, as well as groups that include soft-drink manufacturers using corn sweeteners and poor families relying on food stamps. In 2006, more than 475 organizations reported lobbying on agricultural issues, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The programs currently in effect are set to expire on Sept. 30. Under the proposed bill, $80 billion over the next 10 years would go to price guarantees, income supports, disaster payments and other benefits for farmers. An additional $690 billion is slated for programs such as food stamps, child nutrition, conservation, agricultural research, rural development, and bio-fuel research and development. The tensions within the Democratic Party have strengthened the hand of the farm bloc in the House and led to frictions with the Bush administration, which has joined the effort to make changes in the safety net for farmers.

Yesterday, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns sent a letter to Peterson saying he "cannot support a farm bill that ignores the need for reform." He said Peterson's bill relies on "budget gimmicks" to arrive at projected savings.

Peterson, whose northwest Minnesota district grows wheat, corn, soybeans and sugar beets, has vowed to protect the traditional programs. His proposal would continue about $5 billion a year in annual allowances for growers of the main staple crops. Each allowance is based on the value of the crop that a farm traditionally has planted, regardless of whether anything is planted in a particular year.

From his powerful perch as head of the Agriculture Committee, Peterson has also proposed sharply increasing the government-guaranteed prices for two major crops, wheat and soybeans.

Current price guarantees would be continued for Southern and Western cotton interests. In seeming defiance of the World Trade Organization, the Peterson proposal would allow the agriculture secretary to adjust subsidies "to insure U.S. cotton is competitive in world markets."

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