For about a year and half, Congress has been trying to pass a massive farm bill. It has been a tedious process. Congress and President Bush have sparred; motivations have been questioned; the current farm law has received no less than five extensions. The bill has been routinely shuffled between one committee and another, between the Senate and the House. The list of lobby groups and interested parties that have attempted to weigh in on its contents has been impressive, if not downright exhaustive: corn growers, cattle ranchers, horse breeders, fruit farmers, salmon fishers, school lunch operators, specialty hospitals, and dozens—if not hundreds—more.
Technically, the $300 billion bill is now finished: Members of the Senate and the House polished off a compromise version earlier this week. It is 673 pages long, with 15 different sections. Leaders of both parties praised it as a "good bill," an "essential bill." Yesterday, the House concurred, passing it by a 318-to-106 majority. Today, the Senate approved it by a similarly large majority and sent it along to the president.
And now a showdown looms. President Bush is still threatening a veto, even though the House and Senate appear likely to overturn it. He didn't like the bill several months ago, and he says he doesn't like it now, either. A major point of dispute has been subsidies: billions of dollars paid out annually by the government to farmers, either directly for growing crops like corn and wheat or as a form of insurance if crop prices fall. The president, along with a number of farm lobby critics, has criticized subsidies as an unfair practice, as handouts to rich people who don't need them. And they have criticized the bill for other reasons: for spending too much money on pet projects and for spending too much money in general. "The farm bill passed today is a farm bill in name only," Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said yesterday. "It increases the size and cost of government while jeopardizing the future of legitimate farm programs."
Indeed, the farm bill is not just subsidies. It also contains money for food stamps, food aid, and food relief; money for school lunch programs and nutrition efforts; and funding for research and farming technology. Yet in light of the global food crisis, many of these programs today are more burdened than they have been in decades. Food banks, which receive millions of dollars of farm bill funding, have witnessed a surge in visitors against the grim backdrop of a faltering economy and rising food prices. The number of people on food stamps is at an all-time high (and has climbed dramatically since last year). Humanitarian aid groups, grappling with sharp jumps in commodity prices, are seeing a grave shortfall between the amount of money they need and the amount of money they have.
Without a new farm bill, without a fresh infusion of funding, many groups will be forced to start scaling back their services as early as this summer. "If we do not see a farm bill enacted as quickly as possible to bring immediate relief to this tragic situation," America's Second Harvest President Vicki Escarra said earlier this week, "our nation will witness a catastrophe for low-income men, women, and children."
The tension leaves the president, and to a lesser extent Congress, in a difficult position. Supporters of the new farm bill claim that it does contain, contrary to the president's criticisms, significant reforms. For example, under the new law, anyone earning more than $500,000 annually for doing something not involving farming would be denied subsidy payments. That represents an 80 percent reduction. A $750,000 income limit for all farmers has been added as well. But critics say these numbers are toothless. Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs, told reporters this week that the changes in income caps would affect a couple thousand farmers at most. Legal loopholes are plentiful. Often, for instance, a spouse can qualify for direct payments when a farmer cannot. Such criticisms were echoed on the House floor yesterday, with some members of Congress decrying the irony of continuing subsidies in the face of record commodity prices.
Perhaps more significant, the new bill has a much stronger focus on matters that happen to bear directly on those affected by rising food prices. Two thirds of the funding, an estimated $209 billion, will go to food programs (food stamps, mainly). Food banks will get an injection of $250 million annually. There will also be $10 billion for new nutrition programs, including $1 billion for organic programs and fruit and vegetable farms. Compared with the government's annual spending on subsidies, those numbers are small. But they do represent an increase from the last farm bill, passed in 2002.
Bush continues to protest the bill. This afternoon's Senate vote, 81-15, indicates that Congress is not with him. So far, in Bush's 7½ years in office, Congress has overridden his veto only once: for legislation related to levee construction. But both chambers now have sufficient support to salvage the farm bill, for all its highs and lows.