Thursday, May 15, 2008

House Approves Farm Bill by Veto-Proof Margin

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By Michael Doyle

Washington - The House on Wednesday emphatically approved a massive five-year farm bill by a veto-proof margin, setting up President Bush for a major political embarrassment.

Brushing off Bush's opposition, many Republicans joined a majority of Democrats in approving the farm bill 318-106. This is well over the two-thirds vote needed to override Bush's promised veto.

"We've solved a lot of problems in this bill," said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. "We have a bill that covers all of the interests in the country."

The Senate is expected to approve the legislation by a similarly commanding margin as early as Thursday morning. If the farm bill support holds, as lawmakers expect, Congress is on track to hand Bush the second veto override of his presidency. In an election year, even GOP lawmakers stressed Wednesday that they cared more about their rural voters than about Bush's declining clout.

"I agree that this farm bill is very far from perfect," said Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, a senior Republican member of the powerful House Rules Committee, "but like many of my colleagues in the House, I must weigh the bill by its impact on my constituents."

The farm bill's constantly shifting price tag now has been pegged at $289 billion over five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office's latest estimate. Over 10 years, if farm programs stayed the same, the bill's estimated cost exceeds $700 billion.

"It heaps the burden on the taxpayers yet again," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.

More than two-thirds of the first five years' total spending is devoted to nutrition and food stamps, which the bill renames the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Most political attention, though, has targeted the agricultural payments that are the bill's true foundation.

Traditional commodity subsidies for crops like cotton, rice, wheat and corn remain largely untouched in the new bill. The bill includes a new $3.8 billion permanent disaster payment program, deemed particularly generous for weather-stricken growers in states like Montana and the Dakotas.

The bill offers record spending for fruits and vegetables. Depending on how it is counted, the bill offers between $1.3 billion and $3 billion benefiting special crops through various specialty crop marketing, research and related efforts. This is at least three or four times more than the amount provided under the prior 2002 farm bill.

"The U.S. Congress has accomplished what some of us thought was impossible," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, the California Democrat who chairs the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee.

Bush, who incited conservative outrage when he signed the big 2002 farm bill, positioned himself this year as the champion of reform. He called for a flat prohibition on all crop subsidies for farmers with annual incomes exceeding $200,000.

The final farm bill bans a certain form of subsidy, called a direct payment, to farmers with annual farm-related incomes exceeding $750,000. This income limit can stretch to $1.5 million for married farming couples.

The limit does not restrict wealthy full-time farmers from receiving other kinds of Agriculture Department payments besides direct payments.

"Where's the beef?" questioned Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis. "Where's the real reform?"

The legislation is late, as the prior farm bill expired last year. House and Senate negotiators required multiple extensions to finish writing the bill's conference report that now totals 673 pages, accompanied by an explanatory statement totaling 423 pages.

Beyond the big-ticket farm items, the package boosts myriad pet projects.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, for instance, secured $175 million to buy land and water rights around his state's Walker, Summit and Pyramid lakes. A Vermont ski resort can expand by buying Forest Service land. California's Sacramento River watershed will become eligible for new water quality grants.

Behind closed doors, lawmakers also slipped in provisions only now becoming known.

Without public hearings or prior House or Senate action, for instance, farm bill negotiators impeded public release of subsidy-related records. The last-minute language blocks the Agriculture Department from releasing certain soil, boundary and cropping information provided by farmers seeking government payments.

"The American people won't even know the facts," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. "This is wrong."

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