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How to Keep ‘Em Down On the Farm: Subsidies

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a time when Congress is stalemated on a spate of issues, one measure is an eye-catching exception: a major rewrite of federal farm policy.

While most other major legislation seems doomed to election-year oblivion, congressional negotiators put the finishing touches Friday on a bill that would increase agriculture subsidies a staggering 70% over the next decade.

It’s a glaring reflection of the political geography of this year’s battle for control of Congress: Many of the most competitive races are being waged in the Farm Belt, and the two major parties are in a bidding war to woo those pivotal voters.

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The bill also is a tribute to the continuing political clout of the farm lobby, even though less than 2% of Americans live on farms. And it provides an object lesson in how hard it is to uproot government entitlements and challenge established interests in Congress. The final version backs away from a Senate-approved plan to revamp farm subsidies by slapping a $275,000 cap on those payments and steering more money into land conservation efforts.

The measure marks a retreat from a free-market initiative approved in 1996, when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. The Freedom to Farm Act promised to wean farmers of their dependence on government subsidies and expose them to the risks and rewards of the free market.

But ever since that law was enacted, the farm economy has struggled and Congress has approved one bailout after another. The new bill restores the kind of federal financial support that conservatives had tried to shred.

“The safety net that was taken away by Freedom to Farm has been replaced,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), head of the chamber’s agriculture committee, said Friday.

Farm Belt Problems Are Nonpartisan

The result has broad implications for the 98% of Americans who don’t live on farms. Most obviously, a big increase in federal spending for farm subsidies could drain resources for other programs, such as health and education, especially at a time when the federal budget deficit is burgeoning.

As a political matter, farm policy decisions could prove key in what happens to the Democrats’ one-seat majority in the Senate. The bill is laced with crucial provisions for incumbent Democrats facing tough reelection fights in Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and South Dakota.

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And Republicans have Farm Belt worries of their own: A vulnerable GOP senator is up for reelection in Arkansas. And to retain their narrow House majority, the party is fighting to hold on to several seats in pivotal rural areas.

The House and Senate passed different versions of the bill months ago, and a congressional conference committee struggled for weeks to resolve differences between the bills.

While some financial details remained to be worked out, negotiators said Friday that the compromise measure would fit in a budget framework that allotted about $171 billion over 10 years for farm programs. Compared with current funding for the programs, that would be an increase of $73.5 billion.

More than half the new money would boost subsidies for growers of corn, wheat and other basic commodities. Negotiators dropped the Senate proposal to cap subsidies at $275,000 a year per farm couple, an effort to target the assistance to small and mid-size farms. The compromise sets a $360,000 cap but includes a loophole to let some farmers get more.

The bill provides $17 billion more for land conservation programs, an increase of almost 80% over the 10 years. It also funds nutrition programs and includes a provision backed by President Bush to restore food stamp eligibility to legal immigrants who have been in the country at least five years. Such immigrants were denied benefits under a 1996 welfare reform law.

California cotton and rice growers stand to benefit from increased commodity subsidies. The fruit and vegetable growers that dominate the state’s farm economy do not, because federal programs do not subsidize such products. Other provisions in the bill important to the state include increased funding for developing foreign markets for U.S.-grown food and for agriculture research.

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Political Soft Spot for Farm Families

Speaking for the Bush administration, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman praised several elements of the compromise bill, including its increased emphasis on conservation. But she withheld final judgment of the bill until administration officials had more thoroughly reviewed its contents--and especially its cost.

The compromise is expected to clear the House and Senate in the next week or so. Its passage will be a rare accomplishment in the closely divided Congress. While other measures continue to falter, the farm bill benefited from strong bipartisan support that stems from several factors, especially in a hard-fought election year.

Farmers are a vocal and engaged political constituency. They are well versed on the programs that benefit them. And politicians tend to have a sympathetic view of the family farm as a pillar of American values.

“There is a sentimental value here that is quite substantial,” said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who fought unsuccessfully to reform and rein in the cost of the farm bill.

The politics of farm policy tends to split on regional rather than party lines. That made for some tough choices for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who tried to juggle the competing interests of his party’s most vulnerable incumbents.

For example, the subsidy cap was supported by Midwesterners such as Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, who is campaigning as a friend of the family farmer, and Harkin. Both face tough reelection fights.

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But the cap was political poison for other vulnerable Democrats from states where large agricultural interests tend to dominate, such as Jean Carnahan of Missouri and Max Cleland of Georgia. They lobbied Daschle to eliminate or water down the cap--the position that largely prevailed in the final compromise.

Ironically, that also was good news for the GOP’s most vulnerable incumbent from a rural state, Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas.

Harkin won an important prize: a $2-billion conservation program that he wrote. Final action on the overall farm bill also is important to Harkin because Rep. Greg Ganske of Iowa, who is vying for the GOP Senate nomination, has been criticizing him for the delays in moving the bill.

New subsidies for peanut growers were a key issue for Cleland and his leading GOP opponent, Rep. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. Both pushed for the subsidies; their fight will be over who gets the most credit for the aid.

Closer to home for Daschle were provisions that are of interest to his home-state colleague, Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, one of the GOP’s leading targets in November.

Johnson’s priority was an amendment to help small livestock producers by curbing ownership of the animals by meatpackers. The amendment was dropped from the final bill. But Johnson’s campaign is trying to turn that loss to their advantage by blaming it on his GOP opponent, Rep. John R. Thune, who supported the provision but was unable to include it in the House version of the bill.

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“If John Thune had done his job and gotten the provision in the House bill, it would be law today,” Johnson campaign spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said.

Daschle also kept an eye out for the interests of a senator who is not up for reelection: Sen. James M. Jeffords, the Vermont independent whose defection from the GOP last year gave Democrats their Senate majority.

Daschle fought for an expanded dairy program that is important to Jeffords’ dairy-dependent state. Jeffords spokesman Eric Smulson said the senator was pleased: “Moo! Moo! Certainly we support it.”

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