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Big Ag Holds Big Sway in Farm Bill

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Millionaire farmers will continue getting taxpayer subsidies, sugar producers will inherit more government protections and foreign food aid will take a whack under a five-year, $300 billion farm bill approved by the Senate Thursday.

The vote was a sweeping 81 to 15, far beyond the two-thirds majority needed to override the Bush administration’s promised veto. The House approved the same bill Wednesday by a 318 to 106 count, also safely veto-proof. The margins indicate that the bipartisan proposal is almost certain to become law.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Enactment of the enormous bill would mark a rare departure from the legislative stalemate that has otherwise marked the year. Faced with the choice between moving legislation to the right to satisfy the White House or pushing it to next year, Democratic leaders have increasingly picked the latter. That the farm bill is an exception lends testimony to the influence of the agriculture industry over congressional lawmakers — and to the fear among party leaders of losing middle-of-the-country seats in November.

Not insignificant, agribusiness has donated roughly $31 million to Washington lawmakers in the 2008 election cycle alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, making it one of the most powerful lobbies in the nation.

Two-thirds of the bill’s funding will go toward popular nutrition programs, like food stamps and healthy-snack programs for low-income students. The remainder will fund crop subsidies, disaster farm-relief, biofuel production and land conservation efforts. Sprinkled throughout the package are numerous regional earmarks, like funding for racehorse owners in Kentucky and salmon farmers in California.

“This bill benefits every American, from our smallest towns to our biggest cities, urban and rural residents, farmers and non-farmers,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement.

But opponents wonder if some of the beneficiaries need the help. Under the bill, for example, individuals earning up to $750,000 in farm income and $500,000 in non-farm income are eligible for taxpayer subsidies. That means a farming couple could feasibly take in $2.5 million a year and still receive federal assistance.

Critics also point out that farm operators — who number more than 2.1 million — already earn far more than other Americans, with average household incomes estimated to be roughly $90,000 in 2008, according to the Agriculture Department.

“This bill was well designed to avoid every opportunity for serious reform of wasteful, outdated subsidy programs while actually piling on additional layers of unnecessary spending,” Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) said in a statement. “Commodity prices are through the roof and yet we are still funneling billions of dollars to farm households making up to $2.5 million a year in profit.”

Kind, whose district includes a variety of agriculture, was one of just four House Democrats to vote against the bill on Wednesday. Two upper-chamber Democrats, Rhode Island Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed, also opposed the bill.

Even some bill supporters say the income caps are too kind to big farmers. Chris Peterson, president of the Iowa Farmers Union, said subsidizing wealthier farmers pushes up rents and land prices for everyone else. “It makes life a little more miserable for us little guys,” he said. “Sooner or later, we’re going to have to bite the bullet and get rid of some of these subsidies.”

One controversial provision creates a new program to have the government buy surplus sugar from the marketplace and put it toward ethanol production. Chris Edwards, director of tax policy at the conservative Cato Institute, said that that provision hurts consumers twice: First, when their taxpayer dollars fund the program; and later, when it reduces market supply, thus keeping sugar prices artificially high on the grocery store shelves.

Democratic support for such provisions is puzzling, Edwards said, for it bucks the party’s populist approach. “It’s a reverse Robin Hood scenario — to the Democrats’ shame,” he said, adding that the overall bill is “an abomination.”

The White House agrees, arguing that the proposal is too expensive, too generous to wealthy farmers and relies on budget gimmicks to cover the costs.

“It does not target help for the farmers who really need it,” Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said in a statement, “and it increases the size and cost of government while jeopardizing the future of legitimate farm programs by damaging the credibility of farm bills in general.”

The administration also blasted the proposal for continuing to prohibit the U.S. foreign food aid program from buying crops overseas. Aid groups have long-argued that allowing those dollars to purchase food abroad would expedite delivery to the people in need — something the White House supports. Agricultural interests, however, have successfully convinced lawmakers of both parties not to change the rules of the $2.1 billion program.

Another foreign food aid program — the Dole-McGovern International Food for Education program — also took a hit under the new farm bill. That initiative, named for former Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and George S. McGovern (D-S.D.), encourages low-income kids overseas to attend school by providing them free lunches. Its current budget is roughly $100 million per year, but the new law slashes that figure to about $60 million.

The bill now moves to the president’s desk, where it is expected to be vetoed. If lawmakers successfully override it, as is also expected, it would mark just the second time that Congress has overturned a veto under the Bush administration. (The first instance came last fall, on a water projects bill.)

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