By Dan Morgan
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Farm bloc lawmakers yesterday offered the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry $1.8 billion in new federal grants over the next five years as part of a farm bill that would leave in place far larger subsidies for grain, cotton and dairy producers.
The concessions were part of a balancing act by House Democrats to craft a bill that will satisfy politically powerful farm interests while also bearing a Democratic imprint of reform. The House Agriculture Committee was set to vote on the legislation late last night or today.
The package, unveiled yesterday by Committee Chairman Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), also increases funding for land conservation, wetlands protection and nutrition programs -- popular with environmental groups and urban lawmakers.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the package "a good first step toward needed reform."
Deputy Agriculture Secretary Charles F. Conner said it "moved in the right direction but still has some ways to go." He noted that the Democratic proposal increases price guarantees and supports for some crops such as wheat and soybeans at a time when U.S. trading partners are demanding that those crops be sharply reduced to create a level playing field for farmers worldwide.
The proposal, presented at a committee meeting attended by throngs of farm group lobbyists, received a mixed reaction from some House members and outside critics of the farm program.
Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who is leading an effort to phase out traditional farm programs and channel more money to conservation and nutrition programs, said the proposal gave "crumbs and pennies" to states such as California and Florida.
The bulk of farm program funds, he said, would still go "to 20 congressional districts" in the South and Midwest that benefit from traditional price guarantees and income support programs even though farm incomes are at record levels.
Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of the anti-poverty group Oxfam America, singled out for criticism a measure outlined by Peterson. It would lower the ceiling for individuals receiving farm subsidies from $2.5 million to $1 million in adjusted gross income. The Bush administration has proposed a deeper cut to $200,000.
"It's a sad day when the Democratically led Agriculture Committee is a better friend to wealthy special interests than the Bush administration," Offenheiser said.
Some farm-state lawmakers are opposed to any adjustments in the payment limits, but Peterson said publicly that without some gesture toward reform the entire farm bill could face a major fight on the House floor.
Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), who has spearheaded the lobbying for fruit and vegetable interests, praised Pelosi for "direct involvement" in pushing for substantial grants for that sector for the first time. "She made clear we had to have serious and significant reforms but maintain a safety net for those areas of the country that were already covered," he said.
The proposal would also expand acreage in a grasslands reserve and provide help for farmers required to meet federal air-quality standards.
Federal payments to private crop insurers would be reduced by about $1 billion over 10 years to free funds for other priorities.
An earlier subcommittee draft of the farm bill would have merely extended the current farm subsidy programs. The proposed new version would do away with some price guarantees and allow farmers to opt for an income guarantee instead.
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.