Backward in the Senate

Friday, December 14, 2007

AN AMENDMENT to the 2007 farm bill that would have limited federal payments to well-to-do farmers failed in the Senate yesterday. The vote was 56-43 -- in favor of the measure. How can a bill backed by a substantial bipartisan majority not pass? Welcome to the wonderful world of agriculture politics.

The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), would have capped government supports at $250,000 per year per farm. To be sure, that figure is more than five times the median household income in the United States. But, given that a lucky 570 farms received $250,000 or more in 2005, and that two-thirds of crop supports benefit just 10 percent of farms, this would have been progress.

But Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) did not see it that way. She dug in her heels against the amendment. According to her, it was unfair to producers of "capital-intensive" crops such as rice and cotton. It supposedly would have made U.S. agriculture less competitive in the global marketplace, potentially making us as dependent on foreign crops as we are on foreign oil -- at a time when "news reports continue to highlight cases of dangerous imported food." Left unsaid in Ms. Lincoln's statement was that 26 farms in her home state received $250,000 or more in 2005, according to government statistics compiled by the Environmental Working Group. The recipients include farms run by the Arkansas Department of Corrections, which produces cotton and other crops using convict labor. Federal subsidies to a state plantation worked by prisoners who don't get paid: now that's enterprising.

Ms. Lincoln had the right to filibuster the amendment, which could have caused a fight with only two possible outcomes: a defeat for Ms. Lincoln or a delay in the subsidy-rich farm bill. Not willing to risk either difficulty, the Democratic Senate leadership came up with a special voting rule for the Dorgan-Grassley amendment. Under the rule, the measure proceeded to an up-or-down vote, but with 60 votes -- the same number it takes to block a filibuster -- required for passage, rather than the usual simple majority. The same rule applied to proposals by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to cut off payments for farm households with annual incomes exceeding $750,000 and by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to trim the bloated crop insurance program. Ms. Klobuchar's measure also went down to defeat with 48 votes in favor and 47 against. Mr. Brown's lost as well.

Now Ms. Lincoln has something to crow about on her next trip to the cotton and rice fields of Arkansas. But for a Democratic Party ostensibly committed to fiscal discipline, majority rule and economic equality, this episode is a major embarrassment.

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