By Dan Morgan
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 9, 2008
House and Senate negotiators yesterday reached final agreement on a new farm bill that will spend close to $300 billion on nutrition, conservation, energy and farm subsidy programs over the next five years, but administration officials immediately announced that President Bush will veto it.
"This bill increases subsidies to farmers at a time of record farm income," Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said. The negotiators "have done a disservice to taxpayers."
The speedy reaction from the executive branch put the spotlight on congressional Republicans, many of whom support the legislation and might be hard-pressed to vote to uphold a veto in an election year.
Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (Va.), ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, said that he is "favorably disposed" toward the bipartisan compromise bill, but that lawmakers must decide for themselves whether to vote to override a veto. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) indicated that he will vote against the bill, saying, "I don't think [it] represents our best effort."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) supports the bill. Congressional leaders plan to bring it to the House and Senate floors next week for votes that could test the depth of support for it.
The package, the product of weeks of closed-door bargaining, is stuffed with plums for key constituencies. Dairy farmers will get as much as $410 million more over 10 years to cover higher feed costs, and negotiators tucked in an annual authorization of $15 million to help "geographically disadvantaged farmers" in Alaska, Hawaii, American Samoa and Puerto Rico.
The bill assures growers of basic crops such as wheat, cotton, corn and soybeans $5 billion a year in automatic payments, even if farm and food prices stay at record levels.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) acknowledged that the payments are "very hard to explain to our urban colleagues." But negotiators, under pressure from farm groups, made a token cut of $30 million a year in the current program.
Advocates of the bill stressed that eligibility will be tightened by prohibiting anyone earning more than $500,000 from off-farm sources to participate in the farm programs. Those earning more than $750,000 from farming would also be ineligible for the automatic payments. Currently, only those with more than $2.5 million in income from all sources are ineligible.
The impact of the new eligibility limits would be modest, according to data provided by the Internal Revenue Service. In 2005, it showed 2,025 taxpayers collecting subsidies had farm income above $750,000. The tighter limits will save an estimated $620 million over 10 years, budget officials said.
"Those who say there is no reform here have not read this bill," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.)
But administration officials cited a number of problems, including new protections for sugar beet and sugar cane growers that will require the government to buy excess quantities of Mexican sugar and resell it to ethanol plants at a loss.
Schafer noted the bill increases support prices and guaranteed prices for more than a dozen crops, making the United States vulnerable to trading partners' claims that it violates subsidy limits.
However, lawmakers in both parties pointed to improvements in the nutrition, conservation and research programs that account for the bulk of the bill's costs.
Eligibility for the food stamp program will be eased by increasing the income deduction allowed to qualify, and the minimum benefit will be raised.
The conferees added $1.5 billion over 10 years for conservation activities on working farms. The program is a top priority of Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who favors linking subsidies to a farm's environmental efforts, along lines being tried in Europe.
Almost $400 million would be available to help farmers reduce runoff of pollutants into Chesapeake Bay.
Morgan is a contract writer for The Post and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan public policy institute.