By Dan Morgan
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 15, 2007
Ending a six-week impasse, the Senate yesterday approved a $286 billion farm bill that would authorize significant new spending for farm programs, food stamps and conservation but would make only modest changes in the nation's traditional agricultural subsidy system.
The 79 to 14 vote came after Southern lawmakers used a procedural maneuver to prevent the approval of tighter limits on subsidy payments to large commercial growers of rice and cotton. The savings from the change would have gone to anti-hunger programs, the protection of fragile grasslands and the settlement of lawsuits filed by black farmers alleging discrimination in government farm programs.
Despite yesterday's lopsided vote, the measure still faces serious hurdles. House and Senate negotiators must agree on a compromise version. And the White House, citing inadequate reforms and the use of "$20 billion of budget gimmicks," has threatened to veto the bill, as well as a House version that passed in July.
Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner said yesterday that he was "disappointed" with the Senate measure. "This bill has a tough road ahead of it," he said.
He singled out the Senate's rejection this week of an amendment that would have ended government subsidy payments to farmers earning more than $750,000 after expenses. The current cutoff is $2.5 million.
Conner said it makes no sense to provide income-support payments to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, using dollars derived from middle-class taxpayers. He called on Congress to "simply say no to those people."
Although the amendment, proposed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), was backed by a 49 to 48 majority, it was rejected under rules requiring 60 votes for passage. Another amendment that would have limited federal farm payments to $250,000, down from the current $360,000, met a similar fate.
A key player in blocking the changes was a Democrat, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), who threatened to hold up consideration of the entire farm bill unless Democratic leaders agreed to the 60-vote requirement. Rather than face the embarrassment of a Democratic filibuster, Democratic leaders agreed to her terms.
Members of a coalition of anti-hunger, environmental, church and grass-roots groups who advocate broad changes in the farm program denounced the maneuver yesterday.
"The Democratic leadership of this Congress has come down at almost every turn in favor of subsidized big agriculture," said Ken Cook, president of the Washington-based Environmental Working Group. "They've shown a spectacular deference to a small group of wealthy special interests."
Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, said in a statement: "The Senate elected to rig the rules for voting on essential farm policy reforms so that no reform was possible." Oxfam is an anti-poverty group. It contends that high U.S. farm subsidies contribute to global gluts of agricultural products and hurt poor farmers in developing countries.
But Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Agriculture Committee, said the bill would bring new benefits to thousands of Americans.
It would update the food stamp program, raising from $2,000 to $3,000 the assets a recipient can have, and easing eligibility requirements.
The bill would also provide funding for Chesapeake Bay cleanup, livestock operators seeking help to meet federal clean-water requirements, and farmers willing to employ better conservation practices.
Biofuel refineries producing ethanol from new sources, such as wood chips, switch grass or animal fats, would be eligible for federal loan guarantees and cash incentive payments.
The bill also seeks to improve nutrition in schools, providing $225 million so children in at least 100 public schools and Indian reservations can have free fruits and vegetables.
Growers of fruits and vegetables, who are not eligible for traditional farm subsidies, would benefit. States such as California, Michigan and Florida would receive mandatory annual grants for research and marketing assistance for those growers.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the Agriculture Committee, called the bill "truly representative of American agriculture."
Critics charged, however, that traditional growers of staple crops are still the biggest winners, thanks to deals between Southern and Great Plains lawmakers. Those crops -- corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton -- are enjoying record market prices and generating record profits.
The bill would authorize nearly $10 billion in new payments to farmers, including a $5.1 billion "disaster trust fund" that would cover losses from bad weather, as well as a revenue insurance program that would increase taxpayer costs by $4.7 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Spread throughout the huge bill are benefits for producers of wheat, milk, sugar, peanuts, barley, oats, honey and camelina, a seed used to make biofuels.
It is uncertain whether the billions of dollars in new spending will remain in the final version of the bill. The House and Senate versions would be financed in part by controversial fiscal devices and changes in the tax code that would hit U.S. businesses. Without the extra funding, some new programs would have to be cut, reducing political support for a final version.
Morgan is a contract writer for The Washington Post and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan public policy institution.