This Is Not Reform

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

WHEN THE Democrats took over Congress in November, they promised to legislate differently from their predecessors. Given the slimness of their victory and the voters' pronounced anger at Washington, they had a mandate to dispense with the worst manifestations of craven interest politics and to push for basic reforms in ethics and procedure. Now Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and the rest of the new House leadership are in danger of failing a major test of their commitment to change.

At issue is the massive system of farm subsidies -- federal giveaways that cost all Americans but benefit few -- that is set for reapproval on the House floor later this week. Currently, half of the cash the country pours into farming goes to only about 20 congressional districts. According to the Agriculture Department, in 2004 a third of agricultural payouts went to "very large" operations that boasted average annual incomes above a quarter of a million dollars. These subsidies have helped push rural land prices up and small family farmers out of the market. Other farm payments have been even more misdirected: A Post investigation found that the government gave $1.3 billion between 2000 and 2006 to landowners who did not farm at all. The billions spent on subsidies could be used for any number of other priorities, agricultural or otherwise -- food stamps, conservation programs or debt reduction, for example.

The system also has eroded America's influence abroad. The vital Doha round of trade talks continues to sink in part because of disagreement over American and European agricultural payments. In short, farm subsidies are a disgrace that any reform-minded politician, particularly any reform-minded politician with a big D next to her or his name, should be eager to address.

Instead, the House Agriculture Committee has produced a bill that essentially maintains current subsidy programs, with some minor tweaks billed as "reforms." Among them is a provision that would disqualify a farmer with an annual adjusted gross income of $1 million -- yes, $1 million -- from receiving subsidies. That's a pathetic five times the $200,000 cap President Bush proposed earlier this year. The bill also includes a small sop to fruit and vegetable farmers not covered under current commodity programs -- a move that could generate more support for the bill on the floor than it deserves. And it increases price targets for some commodity crops, worsening a wasteful federal liability.

So what is the speaker's take on this rotten bill? It "represents a critical first step toward reform," Ms. Pelosi said last week. That's the wrong answer. The House leadership should be pushing for significant reform of the crop subsidy system. It can start by supporting an amendment from Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) that would lower the income cap and scale back some of the most egregious payouts. Mr. Kind's amendment is still too modest, but proposals like it, not the legislation on the table right now, are the critical first steps toward reform.

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