House passes $290 billion farm bill
(05-14) 19:06 PDT Washington - -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi marshaled a 318-vote, veto-proof majority today to pass a $290 billion farm bill that will lock in the nation's food policy for five years while granting $3 billion in first-ever money to support California fruit and vegetables.
The bill, expected to pass the Senate, also by a veto-proof margin, includes as much as $40 billion in subsidies to commodity farmers who already enjoy record prices. It also contains a new $3.8 billion "permanent disaster" program that will create powerful incentives to plow millions of acres of prairie grasslands and release the carbon stored there.
The bill also will raise spending on food stamps, food banks and other aid to the needy by $10.4 billion, drawing votes from urban Democrats openly skeptical of raising subsidies to wealthy grain farmers during a global food crisis.
The overwhelming House vote quashed hopes by food, conservation and taxpayer groups that the Democratic-led Congress would seize a period of record farm prosperity to shift U.S. food policy from a 1930s model that subsidizes industrial food production to a modernized approach that could aid more farmers and address new public health and environmental goals.
Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, called the bill a "very big step in the right direction," pointing to the food and conservation spending bundled with the commodity subsidies to ensure passage.
A farm couple will be allowed to earn up to $2.5 million a year before government payments are cut off under new rules that lawmakers called a major reform. An urban couple applying for food stamps is cut off at $17,808 in income and may own only one car.
Democrats also expanded subsidies to new crops and raised subsidy levels, exposing taxpayers to billions more in costs should commodity prices retreat. The payments go to a minority of farmers of a few crops and are highly concentrated among the biggest operations. Nine of 10 farmers in California do not get crop subsidies.
Asked how she could justify paying so much money to wealthy farmers when food prices are rising and Democrats are calling for change in Washington, Pelosi listed the bill's nutrition and conservation spending.
"I justify it by saying this is the best farm bill I've ever voted on," Pelosi said. "It is probably the last farm bill that will look like this."
Every Bay Area Democrat voted for the bill but one: liberal East Bay Rep. Pete Stark.
"It is a rare day indeed that I agree with President Bush," Stark said, "but he is absolutely right to have issued a veto threat of this bill."
The legislation is loaded with special-interest earmarks. California salmon fishermen get a $170 billion bailout added by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa. Kentucky thoroughbred racehorse owners get a $126 million tax write off. The bill will force the federal government to sell parts of the Green Mountain National Forest to a Vermont ski resort.
The earmarks swamp the new $105 million allotted to organic farming over five years and other aid sought by Bay Area groups promoting sustainable agriculture. The $3 billion in research and marketing for fruits and vegetables is a tenth of what will go out in direct payments for wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton, rice and other commodity crops.
Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, representing California produce growers, was grateful that Congress for the first time included fruits, nuts and vegetables in a farm bill. He said he did not want produce growers to get in a fight with subsidized grain farmers because "we were going to lose that battle."
The vote was more than enough to override President Bush's promised veto, which will be the first of a farm bill since Dwight Eisenhower's in 1956. Bush criticized the payouts to wealthy farmers when consumers are paying higher food prices.
Many food and environmental groups were dismayed by the direction of the bill but supported it anyway because it included money for their priorities. Others said the subsidies have so many negative effects that they would rather have no change than this one.
"We oppose committing the federal government to another five years of subsidizing the destruction of family farming," said Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural for Rural Affairs in Nebraska.
Hassebrook said the subsidies help large farms buy out their smaller neighbors, speeding consolidation into giant farm operations, a claim backed by government economists. He said his group could find just five farms in seven states that would see a reduction in payments under the bill's reforms.
"Nancy Pelosi is the 15th richest member of Congress," Hassebrook said. "But when we looked at her financial disclosure statements, it was clear that she would be eligible for farm payments under this bill, because the income-producing assets are in the name of her husband."
The National Wildlife Federation, which had supported the bill because it increased conservation funding, urged its defeat after seeing changes to grassland and wetland protections that were made behind closed doors.
"What has come out ... is entirely unacceptable from a climate change and a wildlife standpoint," said Julie Stibbing, legislative counsel for the group. "We think we have created a perfect storm for both carbon releases and destruction of our last remaining prairie habitat."
The bill would allow farmers to break virgin prairie and still collect subsidies and crop insurance. It also includes a $3.8 billion "permanent disaster" program that will bail out farmers plowing marginal land.
As it is, high wheat prices are speeding the removal of millions of acres of prairie from protection under the Conservation Reserve Program. Taxpayers have spent billions over the years in rental payments to farmers to let marginal land lie fallow and provide wildlife habitat and watershed protections.
"It doesn't matter how marginal the land you bring into production, you will be insured that you will not lose money," Stibbing said. In the Great Plains alone, she said, every newly plowed acre will release between 45 and 54 tons of carbon dioxide now stored in the ground as decayed plant material.
The bill is expected to sail through the Senate Thursday with support from both Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton. Republican Sen. John McCain opposes it.
E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at email@example.com