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."
Peterson's draft has been criticized by fellow House Democrats representing farming interests that receive little direct help.
Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), a senior member of the Agriculture Committee, complained that the bill would provide $465 million in new money over five years to support fruit and vegetable growers.
"That's not even a crumb," he told reporters, adding that unless improvements are made the bill will face a battle on the House floor.
The debate over subsidies is coming in the midst of nearly unprecedented prosperity in U.S. farming. Farm income and the value of farmland and farm assets have been rising, spurred by strong exports and a boom in the demand for corn, which is used to make ethanol.
This week, the Agriculture Department predicted that the value of harvested corn will reach $40 billion this year, up from $22 billion in 2005. The prices of wheat, milk and livestock are at or near record levels.
Bush administration officials say that this is the right time for change because the high prices mean key subsidies triggered by low prices will go unused.
Johanns's plan would expand help for beginning farmers, increase conservation funding and create a new safety net tied to a farmer's revenue rather than to the prices of commodities. It would also deny subsidies to farmers with incomes of more than $200,000 after operating expenses are subtracted. The current ceiling is $2.5 million.
"No one is suggesting that our farmers go cold turkey," said Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Charles F. Conner. But he added that the U.S. government is "not in a position to make payments to anyone in America, regardless of their income status."
On the Agriculture Committee, which is dominated by lawmakers from major farm states and includes some who own farms or ranches, the reform proposals have met strong opposition. And freshmen members from GOP-leaning districts have shown little stomach for bucking the farm bloc.
Space won easily in 2006 after six-term Republican Ney quit Congress and pleaded guilty to charges of influence peddling. But the GOP has targeted Space for defeat in 2008, and four Republicans are bidding for the seat, which is usually a safe one for the Republican Party.
"I think if I were to engage in votes that were detrimental to my district, it would affect me politically," Space said. He represents 4,500 farmers who received about $50 million in subsidy payments between 2003 and 2005, according to USDA records. "It's not about Space saving his own skin, but doing what's right for his constituents," the congressman said.
For Ed Piar, a corn and soybean farmer in Mount Vernon in Space's district, Space is on the right track.
Piar's farm collected nearly $250,000 in government payments between 2003 and 2005, according to the Environmental Working Group. With today's high prices, those payments will be coming down. But Piar remembers how prices tumbled in 1998, leading Congress to approve billions of dollars in additional subsidies. "Who knows what's going to happen two years from now," he said. "It's the 'what if' you have to watch out for."
Morgan is a contract writer for the newspaper and a fellow with the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan public policy institution that promotes understanding between the United States and Europe.