By Dan Morgan
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 27, 2007
Farm state lawmakers, allied with House Democratic leaders, last night easily defeated a proposal for a major overhaul of traditional farm programs that would have pared subsidies to big growers and spread benefits more broadly.
The 309 to 117 vote came on the first day of debate on a multiyear farm bill that was heading for final action today.
Republican support for the bill was in doubt last night because of a dispute over a provision that would tighten rules on the use of tax havens by U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies.
But key farm state Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the amendment, sponsored by Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.). "It rips out the safety net for American farmers and ranchers," said Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (Va.), ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee.
The amendment was billed as this year's major challenge to an entrenched farm-subsidy system. The defeat was a setback for a coalition of environmental organizations, anti-hunger groups and religious leaders who favor shifting more funds to conservation, nutrition and other priorities while creating a more level playing field in world markets for unsubsidized poor farmers abroad.
"Change is tough in this place," Kind said. The current subsidies to farmers, he said, raise farmland prices to the disadvantage of young farmers trying to rent or buy land, while making big farmers dependent on "a government paycheck, not the marketplace."
Environmental Defense, an advocacy group, produced a study showing that more than 300 congressional districts would be eligible for increased funding under Kind's bill, but to no avail.
Kind's vision in recent months came into conflict with the pragmatic politics of Democratic leaders seeking to rebuild the party's rural-urban bonds. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) urged Democrats to support the farm bill.
Recalling that a similar Kind amendment garnered 200 votes in 2001, the Agriculture Committee loaded the bill with billions of dollars for nutrition programs, conservation, black farmers, and the Florida and California fruit and vegetable industries, in an effort to attract broad support. As late as 1 a.m. yesterday, Democratic leaders were adding money for nutrition programs.
About $840 million in mandatory spending was added for the McGovern-Dole food aid program, after nearly $1 billion was shifted out of government payments to private crop insurance companies to offset the cost.
The new funding was sought by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a key member of the House Rules Committee. McGovern said it was "a good thing" that the crop insurance industry would be contributing to feeding hungry children abroad.
The program is named for two former senators, not for the congressman.
The revamp effort by Kind, whose western Wisconsin farm grows corn and soybeans on 60 acres, made him few friends on the agriculture panel.
Committee Chairman Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) said last week that Kind and his allies are "out on a limb, and I'm trying to cut if off."
Peterson suggested that Kind "was being used by the Bush administration," which favors some of the same changes.
"There was no collusion," Kind responded. "I've been working on this for six years."
Morgan is a contract writer for the newspaper and a fellow with the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan public policy institution.