The Senate on Friday approved a farm bill that would continue to funnel billions of dollars in subsidies to wealthy landowners and farmers who are earning record-breaking prices for their crops, rebuffing a concerted campaign by some senators to shift money to conservation, nutrition and deficit reduction.
The bill has drawn a veto threat from President Bush, who has criticized the subsidy payments and the creation of a $5-billion permanent disaster fund.
The White House has an unlikely set of allies in taxpayer groups, environmentalists, physicians and rural community advocates who tried vigorously to change the bill's priorities. They pledged to continue lobbying as the House and Senate now try to reconcile the differences in their respective bills.
Supporters of the Senate bill point out that it institutes significant changes, including support for biofuels and for fruit and vegetable farmers, who make up the bulk of California growers. "California is well-served by this farm bill," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). "It contains a number of reforms, which are a step in the right direction."
Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) fought for some of the reform measures during what he called "a hard week" of debate before the bill passed 79 to 14, a margin wide enough to override a presidential veto.
"We were able to work within a very strict budget allocation . . . and pass a farm bill that is good for agriculture, good for rural areas and good for the health of Americans," he said.
But other lawmakers pointed out that the bill did not significantly alter the subsidy system, which allows one resident of the Beverly Hills 90210 ZIP Code to receive $1 million in farm subsidy payments. "This farm bill fails to provide the fundamental reform we need in Washington," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who proposed a failed amendment that would have phased out subsidies and used the money for nutrition, conservation and free crop insurance for all growers.
The administration noted that the Senate and House farm bills would approve the creation of $22.4 billion in new taxes while failing to do much to limit subsidies. "Congress has refused to significantly limit farm income subsidies for the wealthiest Americans," the White House said in a statement. The $288-billion farm bill sets agriculture policy for five years, but its influence extends to school lunch programs, conservation programs, alternative fuel development, food safety and the amount of help that hungry Americans receive.
About 66% of the farm bill deals with nutrition programs, such as food stamps, but the bill also gives billions of dollars in subsidies to farms that grow a few major crops, including corn, soybeans, cotton, rice and wheat. Activists and some lawmakers say that the subsidies contribute to diet-driven epidemics such as childhood obesity and diabetes, cause pollution and squeeze small-scale farmers out of business.
The bill does establish some limits on subsidies. Currently, farmers with an adjusted gross income of $2.5 million can receive commodity payments. The bill would gradually lower that to $750,000 by 2010, except for growers for whom 67% of their adjusted gross income comes from a farm. Current law allows owners of former farmland that has been subdivided for residential use to continue to receive commodity payments. The bill would limit those payments.
But four major efforts to change the bill's subsidy system and to shift dollars into conservation and nutrition programs failed as a bipartisan group of senators from the Midwest and South banded together to defeat them.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced an unsuccessful amendment that would have immediately banned subsidies for full-time farmers earning more than $750,000 a year and part-time growers earning more than $250,000. "I believe in a safety net, but I believe it is time to move to some reform," said Klobuchar. Acknowledging growing anger about farm spending, she said: "If we don't do the reform in the farm states, it is going to happen to us."
The 1,360-page bill adds $4 billion more than the 2002 farm bill for conservation programs that include wetlands and grasslands, Harkin said.
The energy section of the bill would give farmers money to grow crops that can be used to make alternative fuels, and supports the construction of refineries to process biofuels.
The section of the bill that deals with nutrition would expand a snack program Harkin created to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to the 4.5 million children in elementary schools nationwide. It would also increase food stamp benefits and ensure they keep pace with the cost of living. The bill strengthens mandatory country-of-origin labeling popular with consumers. It also provides more than $100 million to help farmers transition to organic agriculture, collect data on organic crops and conduct research.
For California growers, the most significant impact comes with more than $2 billion in funding for research and marketing for specialty crops, which include fruits, nuts and vegetables. "This is monumental in that from this point on, specialty crops will always be a significant part of any farm bill," said Tom Nassif, president of the Irvine-based Western Growers.
Advocacy groups believed Congress could have done more and said much of the blame rested with the Senate's Democratic leadership. Senate leaders agreed to a 60-vote threshold for some amendments that would have trimmed subsidies after Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who supports subsidies, threatened a filibuster.
Because of that decision, an amendment by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) that would have capped annual payments to farmers at $250,000, down from $360,000, was defeated even though it garnered 56 votes. Klobuchar's amendment also gained a 48-47 majority.
"Those two amendments would have passed but for backroom shenanigans," said David Beckman of Bread for the World, a hunger advocacy group.
He and other advocates said they think they still have a chance to shape the final bill as the House and Senate reconcile their versions in a conference committee, particularly if the administration also applies pressure.
There are some significant differences between the bills, including the Senate's $5-billion permanent disaster fund, which is not in the House version.
"This thing is far from done. The abuses in the farm bill are well-understood," Beckman said. "We have an opportunity to win in the conference."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times